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The QuarryThe Quarry is Iain Banks’s last ever novel. He died shortly before it was published in June 2013. The book is about Kit, the narrator, a young man whose father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Banks apparently didn’t know that he, too, was dying of cancer until he’d nearly finished the first draft.

“If I’d known it was going to be my last book, I’d have been quite disappointed that I’m going out with a relatively minor piece.”

And yet how apposite a final book The Quarry is, despite it being neither really finished nor one of his best.

Kit and Guy live in an old house that is pretty much literally falling apart – like Guy’s body – and which is located very near the edge of a quarry, whose expansion is due to cause the demolition of the house – like Guy’s cancer. A bunch of Guy’s university friends – apparently the only friends Guy ever made – come to the house for a long weekend, to have a kind of living wake for Guy and to look for a certain tape.

The tape is a video tape – the friends were all film students and they made their own amateur productions – that none of them want to see the light of day. The plot – inasmuch as the book has a plot – concerns the search for this, as well as the slow revelation of old tensions and jealousies.

Guy is an embittered, prematurely aged, grumpy old man. He affects an attitude of despite towards everything. The unfairness, pain and grottiness of a slow death by cancer is never far from the page. One of the most moving parts of the book is towards the beginning when Kit is helping his father wipe himself in the bathroom.

‘Is there blood?’

‘There is a little blood.’

‘Well, what does that mean? What does “a little” mean?’

‘It means there is a little blood.’

‘Don’t be fucking smart, Kit; just tell me how much blood there is. And what colour? Red? Brown? Black?’

‘Are you sure you can’t turn around and take a look?’

‘Not without going out into the fucking hall, waddling, with my trousers round my ankles and my cock hanging out, so, no.’

‘If I had a smartphone I could take a photo and show you.’

‘I’m not buying you a fucking smarthpone. Will you shut up about the fucking smartphone? You don’t need one. And you’ll just post the photos on Facebook. Or find a way to sell them in your stupid game.’

‘Course I wouldn’t,’ I tell him. ‘Though you could have Faecesbook, I suppose,’ I add. Well, you have to try to lighten the mood.

‘Oh, Christ.’

‘There’s only a smear,’ I tell him. ‘And it’s red.’

‘Good, fine. Look, just, just, you know, wipe me off and … Christ, this is … Just, would you? Okay?’

This doesn’t happen all the time but, sometimes, I have to wipe my dad clean after he’s moved his bowels. He can’t stretch round or underneath any more to do it himself; even on the opiates the pain is too much now that the cancer has moved into his spine. Often Mrs Gunn will do this. She is paid to be a carer now, though I’m not sure this whole arse-cleaning thing is really within her remit. Guy cried following the first time she performed this service for him. He doesn’t know that I know this; I heard him through his bedroom door, afterwards.

The book doesn’t really go very far after this gut punch. The friends hang out, drink, take drugs, look for the McGuffin and argue. It feels like a first draft. The arguments are repetitive and nothing really different from what Banks had done before. Apart from Guy and Kit, the characters are rather two-dimensional; Haze, for instance, is a cardboard cut-out middle-aged stoner without an ounce of self-discipline or common sense; his main function in the story is to shoot party poppers out of his nose – and maybe to exemplify an extreme of the fucked-upness that afflicts all the older characters.

Kit is supposed to be a high-functioning autism sufferer, and this makes him suitably dry, analytical and naïve as a narrator – but it doesn’t really ring true. Kit is more of a surrogate Banks – as is Guy, actually, with all his verbal abuse against religion and capitalism and popular culture. Kit is far too knowing, too similar to the other characters, too unphased by their middle-aged licentiousness. He even makes a pass at one of them in quite an accomplished and briefly, initially successful way – even though he’s supposedly never so much as kissed a girl.

The book’s conclusion is deliberately bathetic. The search for and discovery of the tape is underwhelming – in much the same way that Guy’s life has been underwhelming – in much the same way that all our lives are underwhelming. All the characters are disappointments to themselves – apart from Kit, who spends half his time (when he’s not putting up with his father and surrogate aunts and uncles) playing an MMORPG. Kit seems to have the best life, is the only one is solvent, hasn’t sold out and has no skeletons in his closet; and yet he’s partly disengaged from reality and doesn’t know how to cope with it. Will he end up being a forty-year-old-fuck-up like the others?

Use of WeaponsI’ve been reading Iain Banks’s books since the early nineties (at a guess); I own all his novels and the whiskey/travel book he wrote. The first one I read was Use of Weapons, which I picked up from the library because I liked the cover. It’s one of his best books and the ending forced me to do an immediate re-read of the novel – the only time I’ve ever done that. I’d been holding off on reading The Quarry – for no good reason, really; well, reading Le Morte d’Arthur recently took a lot of time and willpower. The Quarry is a good enough book – as eminently readable as anything he wrote, but not really classic Banks.

And there will be no more Banks novels – no more Culture books (except, I’ve just discovered, a volume of his poetry will be published next year). It’s hard to say how I feel about this. It seems like his fiction novels as a group and his science fiction novels as a group didn’t really go anywhere much. If you’d read one of either group, you would have had a strong idea of what the others were like (apart from a couple of oddballs like The Bridge and A Song of Stone). I’m very sorry he’s dead (let’s not mess around with namby-pamby euphemisms – he wouldn’t), but I don’t have a sense of work unfinished like in the case of Robert Jordan.

But there are still nearly thirty novels ripe for re-reading. Sometime.

Iain Banks

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Fortress of EaglesI read the first book in this series a few years ago – I picked up my copy of Fortress in the Eye of Time at a street-side secondhand bookshop in Bombay (or Mumbai, if you prefer) and enjoyed it a lot. Although I think I knew there were successor books to it, I don’t think I thought of them as direct sequels. It was only fairly recently that I got Fortress of Eagles from What the Book? in Seoul.

The story follows on directly from what happens in the first volume – and as it’s a while since I read it, and my memory for story details isn’t that good anyway, so I was a little bit lost at first. In Fortress in the Eye of Time, Tristen is called into being – Shaped – by an old wizard called Mauryl. He apparently has lots of knowledge, and even memories of a previous life, locked away inside him, but he is pretty much a naïve tabula rasa. He befriends the crown prince, Cefwyn; there’s a big fight with a dark wizard called Hasufin Haltain; Mauryl dies (apparently), and Cefwyn becomes king.

Fortress of Eagles concerns the aftermath of these events. There’s lots of contemplation of intrigue; the courtiers of Ylesuin have varying levels of support for Cefwyn’s choices – his betrothed, Ninévrisë, is due to become the ruler of the neighbouring enemy nation, and Tristen is widely seen as an abomination, a product of sorcery who doesn’t follow the established religion.

The book is very contemplative and very talky. Until the last third or quarter, it moves at a very sedate pace with not much happening. This is a flaw, but it was a also a nice change of pace. It was never boring to read, as the two viewpoint characters – Tristen and Cefwyn – are both well realised and engaging, Tristen especially. Tristen has lots on his mind, not least of which is the nature of his own existence, and there were plenty of clues that much more would be revealed about this in future installments of the story. Cefwyn has a fractious court to balance, which is interesting enough, and one of the best characters is his adviser and military chief, Idrys (whom, naturally, I kept visualising as Idris Elba), but Tristen was always the more interesting.

Cherryh’s writing is very readable and she can write very good dialogue – which is good, because the characters have long conversations full of long paragraphs. It’s not necessarily realistic dialogue – the characters talk about things that are going on in the world and that are relevant to the story in a way that is basically infodump, but feels pretty natural – it’s the kind of thing a king would talk about, for instance.

She has also developed a particular style of writing and dialogue that somewhat mimics pre-modern writing without being heavy-handed or unreadably dense. Take this bit of banter between Ninévrisë (speaking first) and Cefwyn at a ball:

“Am I the prey tonight or is it Tristen? Policy must attend this festive mood. You are stalking someone.”

“Good lady!” He laid a hand on his breast, above the Marhanen Dragon, worked in gold. “I am suspect?”

“Today since dawn you have held close converse with the captain of your guard, the Patriarch of the Quinalt.” One finger and the next marked the tally. “Your brother the duke of Guelessar, and your brother’s priest, besides a converse again with Idrys, with Captain Gwywyn, and with Captain Kerdin – I discount your tailor -”

“Your spies are everywhere!”

“You ensconce me in this nest of women all with ambitions, all wishing to persuade me to confide in them, and wonder that I know exactly the object of your inquiry, who was riding to Drysham today -”

“Cressitbrook. You don’t know everything.”

“- with his guard. It is he, is it not? Has Tristen done something amiss?”

“Tonight,” he said with a glance at the women in the distance, and with his voice lowered.

“I hear it all, you know. The Warden of Ynefel [Tristen] is out spying on the land. He converses with the horses, quite dire and lengthy discourses, and likely with the sheep. His birds fly over the land and bring him news from every quarter …”

The writing style may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think this is almost exactly how fantasy novels should be written. There is absolutely no reason for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures of centuries past to talk like people from the 21st century, still less for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures from before the colonisation of the Americas to talk like 21st century Americans.

C J CherryhIn the last section of the book, a lot happens – and although it’s very clear how this fits into the overall scheme of things in Ylesuin, it also comes as a bit of a surprise, given the slow pacing of the earlier part of the story. For 450 pages, I did feel that more could have happened; as a result the book feels very much like an episode rather than a self-contained story. You get the feeling that the arc story is just getting started.

Despite this, Fortress of Eagles was a great pleasure to read, and I hope it won’t be long before I secure a copy of Fortress of Owls.

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The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

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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 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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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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The Secret AgentThe Secret Agent (1907) is the story of Mr and Mrs Verloc (along with the latter’s simple young brother). The former is ostensibly an anarachist in London, but he is also in the pay of the embassy of a European power (it’s never specified which). On being called in to see the new ambassador, he is given an ultimatum: provoke the anarchists into some act of terrorism or lose his income. The consequences of this are, without giving too much away, tragic and somewhat farcical.

The novel is subtitled ‘A Simple Tale’, and so it is. The book is centred on the terrorist action and takes a long time to really work up to it. Once it happens, indeed, the narrative takes a step back to work through the sequence of events from other characters’ points of view. Besides the Verlocs, there are Ossipon, an anarchist and ladies man, the Professor, an intensely dour little purveyor of explosives, Chief Inspector Heat, who is aware of all of London’s anarchists but takes quite a laissez faire aproach to them, and Heat’s superior, the Assistant Commissioner, who takes the investigation into his own hands for his own ends.

The storytelling is pretty inconsistent, moving from one character to another, perhaps in an attempt to give equal thought and prominence to each. The technique leaves the novel with no real focal character; the story is almost a baton passed from one protagonist to the next.

Joseph Conrad

There is lots of time given to the minutiae of each character’s personality and motivation, but none of them really comes to life before they’re forgotten by the narrative. In effect, the plot is less a story (in the literary sense) and more a series of consequences, a toppling chain of dominoes that leaves you with nothing but a mess of fallen dominoes. The two policemen are quite interesting characters, but their rôle in the outcome of the story is so slight as to call into question why so much time is spent in their heads; ditto the Professor.

Actually, all the characters were quite interesting and I would happily have read a longer book if there had been more story to go around. As the introduction points out, it’s a very dark tale; perhaps the narrative style was a way of diluting the impact of that darkness, to make it more palatable to Edwardian sensibilities. Having read and enjoyed Lord Jim earlier this year, I was disappointed by this book, although it contained lots that was worthy of reading (such as the descriptions of London as a wet and dismal place, the streets and buildings forming slimy chasms like the bottom of a drained ocean).

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VALISPhilip K Dick is, of course, one of the greatest science fiction writers of the twentieth century and most of his novels (those I’ve read, anyway) are set in the future or in an alternate reality. VALIS is rather different, though. It’s fundamentally an autobiographical account of a period of Dick’s own life – a period that saw him suffer a breakdown and come to believe in some pretty strange stuff.

The book is written in a strange combination of first and third person perspective. The first person is Philip K Dick himself and he refers to himself as being a science fiction writer and so on, although not until well into the novel. The third person is ‘Horselover Fat’ – a kind of split personality of Dick’s. (The name is a translation of ‘Philip Dick’ (from the Greek ‘Philippos’ and the German ‘dicke’ (presumably related to ‘thick’).) This device works very well, because Horselover is the one who has the breakdown and the delusions (for want of a better word) that are the core of the story.

Dick’s authorial voice has a strange relationship to his troubled alter ego. He is a patient, but slightly despairing companion to Horselover, and most of the time you can visualise him as a voice in his head (which you could interpret either way). But he is also, simultaneously, a character in the story along with Horselover. So, when meeting friends, both Horselover and the narratorial Dick are contribute to the conversation. They are even able to spend time apart; towards the end of the book, Horselover goes off travelling the world while Dick and his friends stay at home and wait for news of his exploits.

As to the actual story, it’s a kind of hippy, trippy, mystical conspiracy theory. Quite fascinating in a way, but it took a while to get into – perhaps because I was expecting something more overtly science fictional. Horselover believes that he has had divine knowledge zapped into his head; this knowledge prompts him to take his apparently healthy son to the doctor, which saves the boy’s life. He begins to write an ‘exegesis’ in which he develops his ideas about the true nature of the universe, largely based on Gnosticism, but incorporating other mystical traditions and scientific ideas of the time (1981), such as holography. Here’s an excerpt:

49. Two realms there are, upper and lower. The upper, derived from hyperuniverse I or Yang, Form I of Parmenides, is sentient and volitional. The lower realm, or Yin, Form II of Parmenides, is mechanical, driven by blind, efficient cause, deterministic and without intelligence, since it emanates from a dead source. In ancient times it was termed “astral determinism.” We are trapped, by and large, in the lower realm, but are through the sacraments, by means of the plasmate, extricated. Until astral determinism is broken, we are not even aware of it, so occluded are we. “The Empire never ended.”

Philip K Dick

Much of the first part of the book is introspective and repetitive, dealing with these ideas and the death of a pair of women in Horselover/Dick’s life. In the latter part the book, they hook up with some people who have made a film about VALIS – Vast Active Living Intelligence System – an ancient alien satellite that has changed the course of history by discrediting Nixon and has now brought about the rebirth of Elijah/Jesus/Buddha (as a girl).

This latter part is actually a little less interesting than the convolutions of delusion that are revealed in carefully judged stages. The characters that are introduced later are pretty pathetic, and, in fact, even Dick and his friends (Horselover gets temporarily subsumed back into his parent personality by the two-year-old female messiah) think they’re a bunch of crazies.

The writing is generally very direct and accessible – even when talking about mystical experiences, it does so with a cool, scientific tone. There are quite a few passages where it becomes a little bogged down with long words and abstruse descriptions, but they tend to add to the quietly deranged quality of the novel. The fact that it is pretty much a true story (from the author’s point of view) is disconcerting, but the honesty and irony of the Dick voice makes it palatable and ultimately likeable.

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