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Archive for July, 2011

On Friday, I went back to the hospital to have my main surgical incision squeezed and checked. The doctor decided to take the stitches out. It was somewhat painful – more so than the smaller scars that had been de-stitched the day before. She told me that I should do the squeezing and changing the dressing from now on, and that I didn’t need to come back unless I had a problem or the discharge didn’t dwindle away over the next few days.

I bought myself some dressings and since then I’ve been squeezing pus out of the wound on a regular basis – rather more gently than the doctor did. The incision is about an inch long, just under my belly button, and it’s healed on the right-hand side (my right); when I press it, pus comes out of a cross-shaped incision on the left – a fair amount of it.

I’ve been changing the dressing twice a day – the pus tends to soak through the pad within a few hours. It makes me wonder how long it’s going to take to fully heal – if I keep squeezing pus through the opening, it’s not going to seal up. It doesn’t hurt, though, and seems to be slowly getting better.

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The set up of this story, the first volume in the Magister Trilogy, is quite interesting; C S Friedman has clearly thought about magic and the implications of its use. There are two kinds of magic-users in the world: witches, whose sorcery feeds upon their own life force – effectively slowly killing themselves in the process of using it – and Magisters, who have learnt how, when their ‘soulfire’ dies, to begin drawing off the life force of random humans – eventually killing these unknowing victims and allowing the Magisters to live forever. Witches can be men or women and are untrained; Magisters are always men (because, apparently, women aren’t ruthless enough to steal others’ soulfire) and new ones are trained by old ones.

It’s quite a unique system. Naturally, it requires secrecy on the Magisters’ part in order to work: if people knew that the mysterious disease known as the Wasting was caused by Magisters, people would rebel against them. Magisters often serve as mage advisors to monarchs and there are few enough of them that they can’t seize worldwide power for themselves. They also have one problem: whenever the source of their stolen soulfire dies, they are weak and vulnerable – on the point of death – for a moment until they find a new source.

The main characters in this story are Kamala, a young woman who has become the world’s first female Magister, Prince Andovan, a man who is her ‘consort’ (ie, source of soulfire), Colivar, a Magister who is nowhere near as ruthless as Magisters are continuously described, and Queen Gwynofar, Andovan’s mother and heir of the Protectors, people who saved the world from destruction in a previous age. The return of this ancient danger forms the basis of the plot.

The story moves along at a decent pace, and the various threads of it keep the reader’s interest. The characters are likeable enough. Kamala is the most interesting: she was a prostitute from an early age, sold into the profession by her mother; as such she is damaged and driven. The author’s introduction indicates that Friedman interviewed someone with a similar background before writing the book. There is certainly a feel of authenticity to much of the portrayal of Kamala – up until the point where she has sex with Andovan – who she barely knows at that point.

On the whole, though, Feast of Souls is a fairly unchallenging book. All the Magisters who serve as important characters, while a little wary of each other, tend to co-operate readily enough, despite the fact that they’re supposed to be viciously competitive. The mad king and his evil Magister, who are the villains of the piece in this first book, are dealt with quite easily in the end – although at a high cost; the relevant scene is a bloodbath that borders on the comedic. Andovan and Gwynofar are old-fashioned, good and noble royals – and they’re a little dull.

The worst thing about the book, though, and the reason I won’t be reading anything else by this author, is that her writing is one huge cliché from page 1 to page 564. Anything heavy is as heavy as lead; anything dark is as black as night; anything sharp is as sharp as a razor. Her style of writing is a little odd. It’s written in a hackneyed elevated style – the kind of writing that non-readers of fantasy probably imagine fantasy is generally written in. It’s a mixture of the old-fashioned – x was terrible to behold – and the contemporary – using ‘impact’ as a verb, for instance. It’s also unnecessarily bloated – Friedman never seems to use one short sentence when two long ones will do.

Another disappointing fantasy novel from an author I’d previously heard good things about.

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I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time a few years ago and liked it, so reading another of McEwan’s books was long overdue. Amsterdam is a very short novel – novella really; I’ve done the caculations and it’s probably between 35,000 and 40,000 words.

In the wake of the descent into dementia and death of their former lover, Molly, two friends, Clive Linley, a composer working on a piece for the millennium celebrations, and Vernon Halliday, an editor of a failing newspaper, make a pact to have the other euthanised should they begin to lose their marbles. Then they have a big falling out over a scoop that Vernon wants to publish – and this disagreement has terrible consequences.

The story was a quick, pleasant read – too quick, really, and too pleasant, in a way. The arc of the story seems to cut off very rapidly and the dark comedy of the ending was predictable and over very quickly – it almost seemed like an afterthough – even though that’s what the story is tending to all the way through. The darkness and the comedy of the ending didn’t do much for me, either.

What I did like was everything that went before – from Clive and Vernon’s conversation at Molly’s funeral, confrontations with a goverment minister (also a former lover of Molly), Clive’s search for the melody that will put the final touch to his masterpiece, Vernon’s struggles to make the most out of some scandalous photos he’s received, the two men’s subsequent argument and each character’s monomaniacal quest to justify himself.

It’s this latter that is the key theme of the story. Clive and Vernon’s disagreement is perpetuated by their self-absorption. Vernon wants to run his story even though it’s very morally dubious. Clive lives a batchelor’s life and spends his time perfecting his millennium symphony – or worrying about how to do so. They’re both concerned with the integrity of their work, but both lose their personal integrity.

For the most part, this was a good read, but the conclusion left me rather nonplussed. It could have been a longer book, and the transition from indignation to something altogether darker could have been explored in more detail.

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The Company is a fantasy novel without any magic – which is kind of a contradiction in terms. I didn’t realise this when I started reading it, however, so the continual non-appearance of the magical put me off a bit.

The book is the story of a group of war veterans who are persuaded by the most senior of them to up sticks and move to an uninhabited island. The reason for this is that the commander of the group was a farmer whose family lost their farm due to an earlier war; now, he thinks colonising this island will be the perfect way to realise his lifelong dream of returning to the land. Another thing that threw me off was believing this commander – Kunessin, the book’s main character – had a hidden agenda … but no, he really does just want to farm. The plan is thrown off kilter by what the men find on the island – but as I indicated, it’s nothing of a magical or supernatural nature.

The novel is intended more as a character study than an adventure, but I found the characters all very samey and difficult to differentiate in the first half. Add to this the fact that they all get married to random women (they’re set up by a matchmaker) before they leave, and there are a lot of characters to get to grips with, and the author doesn’t help too much.

The book is littered with flashbacks that show the men in their military career and which I found distracting and boring – they take attention away from the narrative and don’t add a huge amount of necessary information. The characterisation is so bland that they also don’t reveal much about the characters – except for one dead one who takes no part in the story. There’s also a backstory that is used to justify a slightly deus ex machina ending.

And the ending is odd, and ambiguous. By the time it came around I didn’t much care what happened to the characters. They become increasingly antagonistic towards each other as the strain of their situation takes its toll, and there’s nothing edifying about their struggles with one another. This may be the point of the story, but it seems more suited to a short story than to a novel.

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Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a famously long book – and Anna Karenina is not exactly short, either, at 940 pages of densely packed text. It’s the story of a group of Russian aristocrats and their loves and lives – kind of a soap opera, really.

It focuses on two characters in particular, Anna – wife of an older man, a government official, Alexey Karenin – who falls in love with a young military officer, Alexey Vronsky, eventually going off to live with him – which is a big scandal – losing access to her son in the process; and Konstantin Levin, a landowner who struggles with his peasants’ stubbornness, with his feelings for a young debutante, Kitty Shcherbatsky, and with his feeling towards religion.

Actually, Levin feels more like the book’s main character – his eventual conversion mirrors Tolstoy’s own experience, according to the introduction, and he’s a much more likeable character. He’s somewhat shy, or rather lacks confidence in his ability to bandy words with his contemporaries – and lacks the ego to want to do so. Anna on the other hand is rather annoying. Her plight is one that is very much a function of the time she lives in, but she is rather weepy and whiny and completely self-absorbed.

All the characters in the book are are aristocrats and it was written in an interesting time in Russia’s history. It seems to portray a top-heavy social system: the nobility have the time and money to enjoy their leisure – to travel, to work on projects, to have affairs; the common people work hard and hold hard to their old ways of doing things. One of the most interesting parts of the novel is Levin’s back and forth with his tenants, trying to get them to use modern ways and equipment and their intransigence. Another interesting facet was the occasional mention of communists; Anna Karenina was written 40 year before the revolution, but it clearly shows that such seismic forces were long at work in the country.

The writing style was fairly bland, I found. It focuses a lot on dialogue and inner monologue, with minimal embellishment. The translation was a little weird. It seems to have been originally translated into British English (by David Magarshack), and then converted partially into American English for this edition. Spellings are American – ‘gray’, words ending with ‘-ize’ etc – but a lot of the vocabulary is British – ‘chemist’s’; Anna’s son calls her ‘Mummy’.

This wasn’t a terrible read, but it was a long one and one that didn’t have much impact on me. The emotional import of the story was both dated and apparent only through a thick glaze of 19th century politeness. The aspects of the book that most appealed to me were the social and historical ones. If only Count Leo Tolstoy had realised he was writing a historical novel, he could have included more information on the bewildering array of counts and princes and how Russia worked.

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This is the first book in a trilogy (of course) called The First Law (which sounds unhappily like the name of a Terry Goodkind book). Joe Abercrombie is one of those new, younger authors that people seem to make much of these days, and who often aren’t particularly good writers, so I approached this book with a little trepidation.

In fact, The Blade Itself turned out to be a very solid book. It’s an unpretentious fantasy set in a low magic world, with the action divided between cold rugged northlands, a sophisticated central realm that seems based on late Medieval or early modern Europe, and a southern desert land. The three main characters are an crippled torturer who work for the Inquisition, Glokta Sand, a spoilt young nobleman and soldier, Jezal dan Luthar, and a world-weary barbarian, Logen Ninefingers.

The adventure is perfectly readable, and the characters are mostly likeable. Well, Glokta is supposed to be a nasty piece of work – and that comes across convincingly most of the time, but towards the end, he becomes annoyingly petulant and psychotic – against his own principles. Jezal is also a flawed character (intentionally) and he also becomes less likeable towards the end, for similar reasons. One subplot involves Jezal falling in love with his friend’s sister – and this was handled badly by the author, incorporating a couple of huge, embarrassing clichés (like the usually sharp and charming Jezal turning into a mumbling idiot when he meets her). Logen is the central and most likeable character – a rough diamond who is unsullied by the curse of civilisation – another bit of a cliché.

The story in this first novel represents the gathering of a group of heroes to go on a quest – although this aspect takes a long while to fully come out, and, when it does, neither the reader nor most of the characters are much wiser about its purpose because it’s being organised by a wizard, and, of course, wizards don’t tell people their plans. The wizard in question is another central character, but not a viewpoint one, but he’s portrayed interestingly as a stocky, bald man who looks more like a blacksmith.

Joe Abercrombie has created a perfectly competent tale, but not an outstanding one. It’s a work of journeyman-like proficiency, but not one of arresting originality. The characters are mostly believable, the writing is solid, the world interesting enough, and I thought it was better than Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and far superior to Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. I’d give the next book a go.

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I went back to the hospital where I had my appendectomy today, where the doctor re-examined my stitches. The main one, near my belly button, has a ‘mild infection’. She gave it a few squeezes and said I should come back every day for about a week to have it checked. The one that had the tube coming through it for a couple of days after the op looks fine and is no longer bandaged.

When I first went in, I told her that the wound had been hurting and I could feel air bubbles moving around inside me. She wasn’t concerned and replied with the rather gnomic pronouncement, ‘Time heals all.’ She also gave me a photo of my appendix taken during the operation. The offending body part is apparently the big orange lump on the right.

So, I’ll be returning there every day for a while, but at least it looks like I won’t have to pay any further. Which is good. Earlier in the day I went to see a different doctor at a different hospital to get more of my colitis medicine – a month’s prescription that cost me nearly ₩200,000 (about £115 or $190).

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