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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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This is Salman Rushdie’s debut novel – from 1975 (making it slightly older than me) – and the second of his books that I’ve read – the other being The Satanic Verses, from which, despite the fact that I read it quite a few years ago, a few scenes have remained quite strongly in my memory.

Grimus is not an easy novel to categorise, as people so like to do with novels. I suppose you would say it’s magical realism – it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, contains themes from Middle Eastern and Western traditions, but is definitely literary fiction in general tone (although you can’t really pin it down as being especially British, as the main character is American).

This main character, Flapping Eagle, is, in fact, Native American, younger brother of the troubled Bird-Dog. (Avian imagery features greatly throughout the novel.) Bird-dog absconds with a mysterious man, leaving Flapping Eagle with two vials containing a liquid that will make the drinker immortal and one that will kill. Flapping Eagle drinks the immortality potion and spends hundreds of years looking for his elder sister. Eventually, he is washed up on an island – in another dimension – that is home to an ambivalent bunch of immortals who arrived there in much the same way, although much earlier. The island is governed by a kind of absentee king, Grimus; Flapping Eagle makes it his quest to challenge Grimus and find Bird-Dog.

One of The Satanic Verses‘s flaws was that there were too many disparate viewpoints, making it difficult to follow and maintain interest in the novel. Grimus‘s narritive is focused on Flapping Eagle throughout, with only the occasional diversion. Nevertheless, it’s bursting full of diverse ideas: there are anagram-loving, dimension travelling, super-intelligent frog-beings called Gorfs (they live on a planet called Thera that orbits a star called Nus), there is Sufi mysticism, philosophy, comedy, tragedy, coming-of-age, dualities and opposites, social criticism … and no doubt other stuff.

One of the main ideas is the specious attraction of creating an ideal society. The immortals who live on Calf Island (Grimus named it Kaf, after the Arabic letter, but it didn’t quite stick) come there after exhausting many lifetimes’ worth of experience on Earth, but they are an insular group. Not only is their community self-sustaining, static and sterile, but each is caught up in their own obsessions. Ultimately, Flapping Eagle’s arrival shakes things up in good ways and bad ways, but he also succumbs to the lure of the settled, comfortable lifestyle – at least until his actions catch up with him.

Although I had a big hiatus in the middle of reading this book (arriving at my sister’s and getting caught up with video games and stuff), I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not without its flaws – some of the characters are under-used or are near-superfluous (Nicholas Deggle – an ambiguous character whose presence in Flapping Eagle’s earlier life is never really explained – gets left in a hut with a madwoman for much of the latter part of the novel), and the Gorfs are definitely a weird, though minor, ingredient in the mélange. The use of quotation dashes instead of inverted commas is something I find a bit pretentious. And the protagonist is a little lacklustre – more of a foil to the interesting characters around him.

Nevertheless, Grimus is a readable read, full of ideas and intelligence and references that reward further research. My copy was also free, having been given it by my friend Lawrence.

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This is the story of a man and a boy in the aftermath of what you assume is a nuclear holocaust. The weather is getting colder and the two are travelling south down what you assume is the eastern seaboard of the US. They have to contend with starvation, the cold and the bare handful of other survivors.

It’s a darkly engaging story. The two characters spend most of the time balancing on a knife edge of survival. They survive by assiduously searching every building they find – and by sheer good luck. Their encounters with others are brief and stressful. There are a couple of moments of horror involving cannibalism.

The Road is written in a very stylistic manner – it’s spare and bleak; the main character and his son have no names – they are just ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’ or ‘the child’. There are no chapters; instead, the narrative is split into short sections of no more than a couple of pages – some are just a paragraph. There are few adjectives – most things are described as being ‘gray’ or ‘dead’. Sentences are short. Some are just nouns. Descriptions. But then there are occasional passages that feel horribly over-written, full of abstruse vocabulary, and they’re difficult to even make sense of.

Just as the writing style is very bare, the interactions between the characters are minimal. The man is a tired and doubting father. His son questions the veracity of what he tells him, and the man often has to agree that, for instance, maybe things aren’t OK. Their exchanges are a series of short, un-quotation-marked sentences, often repeating what each other say, inflecting statements as questions and vice versa.

The man regards everyone they encounter as a risk – rightly so, mostly. By the end, however, he is starting to seem obsessive, psychotic, even, in the extent to which he tries to avoid others.

The ending is what I was taught to call a dramatic ending. The negative part of the ending was signposted throughout and seemed inevitable and apt. The positive aspect of the conclusion comes from sheer good luck and has no foreshadowing. It seems like a happy ending simply added to prevent the novel being utterly bleak and depressing. That said, you could read it as a terribly ominous ending, but that wasn’t the impression I got.

With the exception of its awkwardly optmistic ending, the bursts of pretentious verbiage and some questions as to why, if they’ve lived for several years since the apocalypse, they need to make this urgent journey and haven’t encountered any orderly community yet, The Road was an excellent book – realistic, harrowing but hopeful and beautifully written.

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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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The manuscript that I began at the start of the month as part of National Novel Writing Month has pretty much ground to a halt at a touch under 17,000 words. My first week back from China saw me writing every day and producing around 2,000 words a day. But on Friday I reached a bit of a crisis, as I could no longer see where the writing was going. Since then I’ve been going back to the (now legendary) drawing board to lay the foundations that should have been laid earlier. Today I mostly completed a kind of potted history of the world up until the point at which my story starts. In the next few days, I plan to brainstorm more of the details that will go into the story’s background – and which I will then sweep away with the first words of actual story.

What I wrote up until Friday had definite merit. In particular, I created four characters with diverse personalities and personal problems. Unfortunately, the whole work just wasn’t quite what I’d intended to write. It happens sometimes that your imagination takes you on tangents that may or may not work out. Also, I think the first character I made – and therefore the first viewpoint character – was a little too YA for my taste.

I now have a firmer basis to continue writing – or, more properly to start writing again, this time on version 2. I have plenty of ideas about the plot, but they’re all either vague or disconnected at the moment. Setting down a real plot, a series of causes and effects slowly building in intensity to the story’s climax will be another important task I have to undertake soon. It’s vital, because I need to know what I’m writing towards in order to write. It’s also incredibly difficult.

I think that conceiving a short story is like trying to visualise a small group of objects, like five apples, or a moment from a film. Trying to conceive a novel, or, worse, a series of novels, is like trying to visualise a million apples or every moment in a film simultaneously. Caveat scriptor, indeed.

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I’d read one Kundera novel before I tackled this one – The Unbearable Lightness of Being and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was different from my usual fantasy fare – intimate, understated, delicate, intelligent (not that fantasy novels can’t be any of those things, especially the latter) – and that was probably a large part of why I liked it.

I also liked Immortality – for the same qualities. Where The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set in Prague, the author’s native home, this novel is set in Paris, the author’s adoptive home. It deals primarily with relationships – the relationships of the somewhat unhappy Agnes, and also of her husband and sister; and also those of Goethe and his supposed love, Bettina. It also deals with the author himself, who is a character in his own novel – although it might be more accurate to say that the characters are people in his own life. And it deals with a gesture.

The book begins with the author noticing a gesture – a carefree, backward-looking wave of a young woman performed by an old woman. This leads him to muse on the relative uniqueness and longevity of gestures and people. People, he thinks, are the vessels of gestures. This carefree wave comes to be on a par with the characters in the novel – transmitted from one to another, and living on because of this.

The characters find their genesis in the early morning drowsy thoughts of the author. In one chapter, the author imagines a woman, lying in bed like himself, savouring the absence of her husband; he tries to think what motivates her. In the next chapter, she has become, without further elucidation, the novel’s protagonist. Although the author never comes face to face with Agnes, he meets her husband and sister; he spends time with his friend, Professor Avenarius, who is also a friend of theirs. He asks the professor about them, hoping to understand what they have done and why.

At one point, Avenarius asks what he is planning to call the novel he is working on (the novel you’re reading); the author says he wants to call it The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to which the professor replies, I think someone already wrote that! and the author responds that it was him.

The novel describes and discusses Goethe and his relationship with a young devotee, Bettina. Goethe – according to what is written here – didn’t care for her much and saw her as a danger to his reputation and legacy. She seems to have been obsessed with Goethe and wrote him letters about love, planning to publish them after his death – along with various self-serving emendations. Goethe is also shown having conversations with Hemingway in the afterlife.

The whole novel is a gentle but mesmerising musing on the nature of the desire for immortality, the desire to control one’s reputation, and how the dead are remembered. I feel that the book doesn’t offer any particular thesis, but just tries to offer a subtly fantastical, psychologically realistic, multi-faceted picture of various intimately or tenuously interconnected lives. Despite the fact that it jumps between the present day narrative and its pseudo-biography of Goethe and even jumps back and forth within the foreground story, despite the fact that it doesn’t so much blur as consider irrelevant the boundaries between fact and fiction, it is beautifully readable from start to finish.

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