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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the WorldsThis is the third in Robert Rankin’s steampunk trilogy (the fourth and fifth books of which will be published later this year and next year) featuring Darwin, the talking monkey butler – upgraded to eponymity for this volume (although the conflation of apes and monkeys is quite annoying). As with The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, the detective Cameron Bell is, in truth, the main character.

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds expands on the universe developed in the other two books. Ernest Rutherford joins Tesla and Babbage as minor characters, but his creation of a time machine has a profound effect on the story (it also turns out that he has created a Large Hadron Collider under London – during the day it is disguised as the Circle Line). The narrative takes Bell to Mars, where he meets Princess Pamela – Victoria’s secret twin sister and spare queen.

Pamela is just one of several strong female characters – one of the best developments in Rankin’s writing in these most recent books. There are two good girls and two bad girls, most of whom have interesting stories, but not much page time as viewpoint characters (if any).

As I tend to expect from Rankin, this book is very entertaining – especially in the first two-thirds; it started to drag a tiny bit towards the end – it’s full of silliness and strange covolutions of plot; it has some heart-warming moments and some tragedy; overall, it’s not too challenging, but it is a lot of fun.

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The HobbitThe Silmarillion with my Tolkien and the Inklings group the previous month, for June, we were supposed to read The Hobbit – so that’s what I did.

Of the three main Middle Earth-based works, The Hobbit is the one most squarely aimed at children. It has quite a Victorian children’s tale feel to it – the style of narration reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, of which I read a little recently. It has a definite narrator – an ‘I’ that pops up now and then, usually to profess its ignorance (‘I don’t know how Bilbo ever managed to …’, ‘I never heard what happened to [x] after that …’ etc). By today’s standards, the style is a little clunky and patronising, but it works well and is perfectly suited to the story being told.

That story is, of course, about Bilbo Baggins and his employment by a band of treasure-hungry Dwarves, at the behest of Gandalf the Wizard, to assist in stealing into the Lonely Mountain – once a Dwarven capital, now the lair of Smaug the dragon – and stealing it (or all the gold and jewels therein) back. On the long trek into the east, they are beset by various difficulties – goblins and wolves, an almost endless forest, a stream of anaesthetic, spiders and haughty Elves.

Bilbo’s character arc, from being a timid, stay-at-home Hobbit who’s most concerned with personal comfort and keeping up appearances, to becoming a wily, brave – even arrogant – thief/fighter, is one of the best elements of the novel. His presence in the Dwarven party and Gandalf’s recommendation of him is not so believable and you just have to put it down to Wizardly intuition; in the context of the larger Middle Earth narrative, we know that Gandalf is, in fact, a Maia, one of the second tier of divine beings created by Ilúvatar at the beginning of time, so his prescience is understandable.

Some of the other characters’ performances seemed a little off – namely the Dwarves. Dwarves’ legendary love of gold and other treasure comes through admirably towards the end of the story and makes for the most interesting conflict of the book. Before that, however, these supposedly doughty warriors often seem buffoonish and even cowardly. When, for instance, the band finally gains access to the halls of the Lonely Mountain, the Dwarves are content to huddle at the door while Bilbo alone goes to spy out the dragon and its hoard. Admittedly, by this time, they’ve come to trust and rely on the Hobbit a lot, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.

Another thing that bothered me is the dispossessed king syndrome. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s Aragorn who is destined by his heritage to play a major part in events. In The Hobbit we have not only Thorin Oakenshield – whose quest to recapture what his family lost is understandable – but also Bard, a seemingly random Man and minor character who pops up towards the end of the story more or less happily living in obscurity until Bilbo et al turn up. He then plays a pivotal rôle in defeating Smaug. Bard just happens to be descended from the kings of Dale, a city that was destroyed by the dragon. Part of this love of the idea of noble kingship, that kings are just better than the rest of us, is idiomatic of the early fantasy genre, and part of it is simply because Tolkien lived in a more deferential age, but I don’t much like it (I also, as it happens, don’t care for the more recent inversion of this, that those in authority are worse than the rest of us).

All in all, The Hobbit is an entertaining, if slightly slight, novel. Having now read the first book (not volume) of The Lord of the Rings – parts of which rather dragged – I now appreciate the conciseness of The Hobbit, although the later work is decidedly less twee.J R R Tolkien

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To the LighthouseSeveral years ago, my dad bought me a Penguin boxed set of twentieth century novels that included the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Animal Farm, something by D H Lawrence; this is the first that I’ve read. I’d never read any Virginia Woolf; I won’t be hurrying to read anything else by her, I think.

First impressions of the book were quite good. It’s a portrait of a fairly disparate group of more or less socially awkward people all brought together by the Ramsays to stay on their summer home on a Scottish island, along with their various children. Mr and Mrs Ramsay are the focus of the novel (and are based on Woolf’s parents, the blurb assures me), but they are by no means the dominant viewpoint characters.

There is a strong sense, now that I think about it, of the fleetingness of life. The narrative does a lot of head-skipping – jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint. I found it rather annoying, actually. There are various places where, for instance, there are two female viewpoint characters, maybe in successive paragraphs, each of whom may be thinking about the other or other women in the house, and too liberal use of pronouns, making it hard to identify exactly who is being referred to.

But where this technique does work, it shows a group of people who are all thinking about each other and who don’t really understand each other. However, you don’t necessarily get an in-depth portrayal of any one character – at least, until the end of the book.

The structure of the novel increases the sense of transitoriness. The main, first part of the book is as I’ve described; the second, very brief section shows time passing (it’s entitled ‘Time Passes’) and various events happening to the Ramsays and their friends; in the third part, some of the characters return to the house and revisit their earlier activities or intentions. This latter segment is quite melancholy, as various characters have died or moved on, and, while the viewpoint is more stable, alternating between just two characters for the most part, it’s quite dull; I missed some of the more interesting people.

Some of the writing is quite beautiful and evocative, like this from the second part of the book:

Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors…. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.

There were a couple of moments when the characters’ reactions and motivations struck me as being perfectly realised – such as James Ramsay’s hatred for the father whose pronouncements about the weather deny him the chance of a trip to the lighthouse (and who, much later, takes him and a sister). Charles Tansley’s pride at holding Mrs Ramsay’s bag made me stop reading and think, Wow – that’s exactly right:

… all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:—she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets—what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair—He had hold of her bag.

“Good-bye, Elsie,” she said, and they walked up the street, she holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner, while for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.

In addition to the aforementioned head-skipping, the long sentences were often difficult to process and made reading the book an often frustrating experience. In this passage, the first paragraph consists of one short (or non-long) sentence and one incredibly long one (this excerpt comes just after the previous quote where Tansley realises his love for Mrs Ramsay, so the second paragraph not only clarifies the first, but also sets the young man’s thoughts in context):

But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

They had ceased to talk; that was the explanation. Falling in one second from the tension which had gripped her to the other extreme which, as if to recoup her for her unnecessary expense of emotion, was cool, amused, and even faintly malicious, she concluded that poor Charles Tansley had been shed. That was of little account to her. If her husband required sacrifices (and indeed he did) she cheerfully offered up to him Charles Tansley, who had snubbed her little boy.

What I’ve cut and pasted from the text into my review show some very noteworthy writing. Ultimately, however, the lack of narrative focus and drive and the deliberately anti-climactic latter parts of the book made finishing it a real chore, even though it’s a mere 230-odd pages long. The last section, only a third of the book, with Lily Briscoe agonising over her painting and Mr Ramsay, oblivious to their spite, taking two of his children to the lighthouse, seemed interminable.

To the Lighthouse is not a terrible book, by any means, but it’s not an easy one to enjoy or appreciate.

Viginia Woolf

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The SilmarillionThe Silmarillion is a curious book, in various ways. While many (though not all) love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, not so many of those who do have a great liking for Tolkien’s part mythology, part history of Middle Earth. It is a book that could only be published on the coattails of a massively successful fantasy series – The Wheel of Time and A Sonf of Ice and Fire, for instance – and would probably only be of interest to people who really liked the original story.

It’s also strange in its narrative focus. The early part of the volume is distinctly biblical in its style of writing and concerns the pantheon gods and lesser primordial beings – the Ainur – which gives it very classical Greek overtones. After that, though, the story gradually expands to become more novelistic in style – events are described in increasing detail and characters are given more dialogue.

Some of those who have read the book prefer the later parts for exactly this more character-centred stle. However, I first read it a long time ago and it was the earlier, mythopoetic part of the volume that always stuck in my imagination; it shaped my attitude towards fantasy cosmogony in my own creations. That said, the tale of Beren and Lúthien also got lodged in there, although less inspirationally so.

Reading The Silmarillion a second time – for the Tolkien discussion group I attend – I was struck by a few things. Firstly, my memory is not very good for lots of the details of the various sub-plots and characters that occupy various chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion – the long central part of the book that deals with much of the history of the Elves. This is largely due to the nature of the narrative being related.

J R R Tolkien

It was the story of Fëanor, his jewels, his family and his people that especially interested me, but their story is dispersed throughout the Quenta. This arc story is interrupted by various notable episodes. There are a few chapters – that concerning Beren and Lúthien and the one about Túrin Turambar – where the narrative becomes rather more detailed than usual – and these are admittedly some of the best tales within the larger story. But, in some ways, they feel rather irrelevant, especially that of Túrin; Beren and Lúthien have a direct impact on the fate of the Silmarils, at least. It also occured to me that, if all three Hobbit films are successful, these individual tales from The Silmarillion might make excellent money-spinning successors.

Towards the end of the book, the attention shifts away from the Elves and towards Men. To me, this felt very anti-climactic. Men are lesser beings than Elves, having been given the crappiest gift imaginable – short lives and actual death – by Ilúvatar, the Creator. Even the villain of the latter piece, Sauron, is basically a cheap knock-off of his erstwhile boss, Morgoth. Much of what Sauron does has already been done by the disgraced god.

This relates to one of the overall themes of all the Middle Earth works – that of continual decline, a slow, inevitable fall from grace. The poignancy of this comes across extremely effectively in The Lord of the Rings, I think, but here, the sweep of history – and especially Man’s role in the latter parts of that history – render it a rather annoying kind of nostalgia.

My attitude towards the Ainur – the Valar, in particular – changed a lot over the course of reading the volume. At the start, they seem wonderfully noble and magical. By the end, however, they are distinctly haughty and uncaring – especially when it comes to Men. Their ban on anyone sailing west beyond sight of Númenor seems little more than divine racism and then tearing the world in two, punishing Elves and Men for the sins of Sauron is a fit of pique a two-year-old would be proud of.

Which observation segues into one of the more profound (and yet somehow irrelevant) critiques of Tolkien’s work: that it propounds a deeply reactionary message: some people are just better than others, some people’s ancestry gives them the right to rule their fellows. This is countered, of course by the fact that Frodo Baggins, a simple Hobbit from the Shire, saves the world in The Return of the King – but Frodo is also accompanied by his unquestioning servant, Sam; and, while Frodo sails off to retirement in the sky, Aragorn, descendant of the Kings of Númenor – a land that no longer exists – becomes king of Middle Earth (a large part of it, anyway).

All that being said, there is much that is good in The Silmarillion. The writing style, while antiquated – in different ways at different places – is carried off with an authority that makes you feel that you really are reading the collected myths and legends of a world. Many of the motivations of the human-scale characters are thoroughly believable and their often unpleasant ends have a sense of justice to them. And in terms of killing off characters, Tolkien definitely out-George R R Martined George R R Martin long before Westeros had been thought of.

I don’t think The Silmarillion is perfect, by any means, but anyone who’s enjoyed The Hobbit and TLotR should find their appreciation enriched by reading it. Or, given that the published form of the book was put together after Tolkien’s death by his son Christopher and Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, they may just find it an example of barrel-scraping.

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The Book of Atrix WolfeI picked this book up recently at What the Book? in Seoul. McKillip is not one of the more well known authors, but I’ve read one of her previous works, The Riddle-Master Trilogy, and remembered it as interesting, low-key, well written, but a little slow and dull. Like that previous story, The Book of Atrix Wolfe is short, gentle, thoughtful, but less than totally gripping. Even at less than 250 pages, it took me a long time to get through it – I had other things that just seemed to demand my attention more.

However, I still liked the novel.

The story starts with a prologue set twenty years before the main narrative takes places and shows how one of the land’s most powerful wizards – Atrix Wolfe – is persuaded, coerced – tricked? I’m still not entirely clear on the motivation – into working some sorcery to facilitate a war of conquest. The resulting magical entity is uncontrollable and kills many and ends the war. The Hunter is awakened a couple of decades later when the prince born on the night of the slaughter discovers a paradoxical spellbook written by the wizard. The spell that created the Hunter turns out to have wreaked devastation beyond the world of mortals; the fey Queen of the Wood has been seeking her lost daughter for two decades.

The main character, Prince Talis Pelucir, is a bespectacled trainee wizard whose parents were killed (one directly, one indirectly) by a malevolent magical being when he was a baby. Remind you of anyone? This book was published a couple of years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, though, so it’s OK.

Another main character is called Sorrow – or Saro (in an American accent I suppose they’re homophones) – and sorrow is a major theme of the novel. Everyone’s lives have been overshadowed by the murder committed by the Hunter – and, inasmuch as the Hunter is his proxy, by Atrix Wolfe himself.

Another theme is the paradoxical nature of the spells written in the eponymous book. When trying to extinguish a candle flame, Talis instead shatters every nearby mirror. The ambiguously named Saro is unable to speak, and yet she is capable of magic, although the spells often rely on language. I suppose you can read into this the message that language is a kind of magic – why else do we read fiction, if not to be enchanted by things that are not real and yet somehow true?

I enjoyed reading the shapeshifting battles of Atrix against the Hunter. Wolfe changes himself into animals, leaves, stones, stone, water in his efforts to evade his overly puissant creation. The mute version of Saro has lived her life in the Pelucir castle kitchen, working as a pot scrubber. The environment and social hierarchy of the kitchen is also fascinating; the place is populated with a head cook, a tray mistress, undercooks, pluckers, spit boys, mincers, peelers, musicians (who announce meals with a fanfare) and more.

Patricia A McKillip

I think The Book of Atrix Wolfe is a better story than The Riddle-Master books, and I really wanted to be more engrossed by it than I was. It has a uniquely gentle and subtle but definitely high fantasy feel to it. I’m going to try to pay better attention to the next Patricia McKillip book I read.

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Saving the AppearancesI read this book with a Tolkien and the Inklings discussion group I’m part of here in Korea. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings – the Oxford University literary group that included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. Barfield’s thoughts on semantics and nature apparently influenced his more famous fellows; he also helped develop theosophy and translated Rudolf Steiner. He died relatively recently – 1997 – at the grand old age of 99.

Saving the Appearances starts off pretty innocuously, talking about how perception and reality are necessarily two different things. Barfield uses the example of a rainbow, arguing that the light and the raindrops are not directly perceptible to an observer – they are ‘particles’ or ‘the unrepresented’. He says further that the rainbow doesn’t meaningfully exist without an observer. The emergent phenomenon of the rainbow is a representation – something that can only exist because of the unconscious effect of particles on an observing consciousness.

Anyone who’s ever heard of subatomic particles will immediately understand the logic of this argument. The building blocks of reality are whizzing specks of mostly empty probability and yet we perceive things as solid objects. I couldn’t help thinking that photographic equipment easily proves the existence of rainbow absent a seeing, thinking being (although, of course, someone still needs to look at the resulting photograph).

He goes on to say some interesting things about how the pre-scientific mind may have interacted cognitively with the world. Namely, that, instead of recognising objects, nature itself, as being other entities, it was, to use the cliché, ‘at one with’ nature and things, it saw them as being no different from itself; it was pantheistic. This relationship to the world Barfield names original participation.

From here leads the crux of the book. The rise of Judaeo-Christianity and of science has led humanity to lose all sense of this original participation. Instead of perceiving self and world to be two sides of the same thing, humanity has categorised natural phenomena as other, independent, real, objective. In Barfield’s terms, the representations we perceive have become idols, and we, idolators. The book’s subtitle is A Study in Idolatry.

Original participation is a way of perceiving the world that can never be regained. It would be easy to brand Barfield anti-scientific (and in some senses, he is), but he takes pains to commend much of what science has achieved and he regards the scientific mentality as an inevitable and necessary part of the evolution of human consciousness. The next stage, he argues, is final participation.

I think final participation is not sufficiently explained or explored, but, putting it as best I can, seems to be an imaginitive, creative engagement with phenomena. You might call it a spiritual connection to representations; you might call it a kind of internalised pathetic fallacy.

Towards the end of the book, there’s lots of stuff about Christianity. He appears to regard Jesus as some kind of singularity in history, a fulcrum between original and final participation. Yet the friend who introduced this book to me via the discussion group I mentioned, swears that Barfield is not a Christian, rather a pantheist. Saving the Appearances belies that assertion; he clearly regards Jesus’s life as a divine intervention in history.

Barfield also appears not to believe in prehistory – he continually states that the evolution of consciousness and the evolution of nature have gone hand in hand. The implication being that, in some sense, nature – phenomena – did not exist before there was a consciousness to appreciate it. To put it in a way that I find easier to understand, pre-history is an ineffable wave function that is impossible to collapse without direct observation. Everything we believe about pre-human eras is a model. It’s a useful thing to bear in mind, but the idea that pre-historic plants, animals and geological processes didn’t exist – or can’t be said to have existed – is pretty ludicrous. You might as well say that no one can ever be convicted of a crime unless someone actually observed the perpetrator commit the act.

Owen Barfield

I think there are two main flaws in Barfield’s thinking. One is his anthropocentrism; the previous paragraph highlights this. Nature doesn’t meaningfully exist without people to, effectively, create it by perceiving it. There is some metaphorical truth to this, but accepting this as literally true seems to be far too great a leap of faith away from a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

The idea of final participation, that the best way to see phenomena is creatively, empathetically, is also very self-centred. The corollary of this is that how you feel about something is more important than the way something actually is. It’s quite a dangerous tendency, in fact. The sun, for instance, may be regarded as a god-like, life-giving, friendly, golden orb in the sky – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a vast, continuous, cancer-causing thermonuclear explosion.

This leads on to the second main flaw, which is that the book basically urges a synthesis of scientific and creative views of the world – without apparently realising that they’re two different things that exist for two different reasons. Science is a careful attempt to explore and explain nature as objectively as possible. Creativity – spirituality, if you like – is a form of therapy – it’s a way of helping humans feel content in and connected to the world; it’s a way of explaining the world in a way that makes sense to limited human mentality. Science cares nothing for human feelings (except as a field of study); nature cares nothing for its own comprehensibility.

Clearly, both ways of understanding the world are very important for humans; life would be meaningless without art – but it would be intolerable without science. The Darwinian in me wants to point out that science is just an incredibly successful way of regarding the world; spirituality didn’t discover penicillin or put a man on the moon or create the internet.

Saving the Appearances, then, is certainly an interesting book, but ultimately not convincing and not more than a footnote in the debate to which it contributes. Finally, this particular edition – from the Wesleyan University Press – alternates between two (albeit very similar) fonts at random points in the text. Bizarre.

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Taliesin by Stephen LawheadWhen I first started reading this book – which I’ve had in my possession for a few years – I thought it was pretty good – not spectacularly well written, but journeyman-like. Then I kept reading, and it got worse and worse, and worse.

Taliesin is the first book of the Pendragon Cycle, a re-telling of the Matter of Britain – although Arthur apparently doesn’t turn up until the third book. Taliesin (pronounced tal-i-ESS-in), the historical figure, was a renowned Dark Age Welsh bard, some of whose supposed works survive in The Book of Taliesin.

The story of this volume is Y-shaped – two plot threads slowly come together about halfway through. One concerns Charis, an Atlantean princess and her escape from the doomed continent. The other is about Elphin, a young Celtic lord who discovers the baby Taliesin wrapped n leather in a weir. The whole book constitutes the story of Taliesin’s life.

As I said, it started off promisingly. Actually, I always found Charis to be quite uninteresting – she was little more than a mopey teenager. Elphin, I found much more sympathetic – as an unlucky youth, his discovery of the apparently magical baby and his marriage to a similarly ill-starred woman, turns his life around, and I actually found it quite moving. As soon as Taliesin becomes a man, however, the now Lord Elphin pretty much drops out of the narrative.

Stephen R Lawhead

The more I read of this book, the more its flaws became apparent. The characters are quite two-dimensional – Charis is a starts off as a mopey teenager, and turns into a mopey adult with mad ninja skills from her years as a bull-dancer; Elphin is essentially the perfect man – there is absolutely no evidence for his lack of luck apart from what the narrative tells you; a minor character, Morgian, Charis’s half-sister, is evil-for no better reason than that’s what the plot requires.

It’s also full of clichés. When Charis realises Atlantis is doomed, no one believes her – of course. When Morgian intercepts messages between Charis and Taliesin and substitutes her own, no one thinks to double check. When Princess Charis and Prince Taliesin decide to marry, their previously chummy fathers can’t handle it.

Worse than all this and the various extremely convenient reversals and turns of the plot, is the writing – it’s always the writing. It reads like it was never edited. These days, books don’t get effectively edited because publishing margins are so tight and editors are over-worked – Taliesin was published twenty-five years ago, though. The descriptions are adjective-laden – and they’re always the obvious adjectives. And the book, while not being a massive doorstop of a tome, is still too long; it’s full of passages – whole chapters – that don’t advance the plot and just aren’t interesting. Here’s one low point of the text:

The hours passed one after another as the sun made its slow way through the dull, cloud-draped sky. Charis remembered nothing about the rest of the journey, except the deepest deadliest pain she had ever known and the darkest, emptiest, silence that received her heart’s anguished cries. She moved as in a dream, achingly slow, burdened with the most enormous weight of mind-numbing grief.

There’s really not much more to say about this book after that.

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