Archive | November 2011

100 Books in 2011: Watchers

Watchers by Dean Koontz is a story about the consequences of genetic engineering. A little bit. Mostly its a creepy horror story of nice people being stalked by horrible things.

Travis Cornell is hiking when he meets a dog. The dog is quite keen to get him away from the woods and he realises they are being stalked by something large and dangerous. They get away and Travis takes the dog home. Later they meet Nora Devon who’s being stalked by a sexual predator. The dog convinces Travis they should go to her house at the moment her stalker attacks her, and they are able to save Nora. A relationship develops and they become a family of sorts.

Vince Nasco is a hitman who has been hired to kill several scientists who were working on projects to genetically engineer a super-intelligent dog and a super-soldier baboon. He gets the idea that if he can find the dog he can get a lot of money in ransom for it. So he starts searching for Travis and his family.

National Security are searching for the baboon creature and the creature is searching for the dog, because it hates the dog.

I liked this quite a lot. It’s tense, well-paced and compelling. The section at the start with Nora and her assailant is toe-curling. The mystery of what the scientists have been creating is revealed carefully. Characterisation is good, dialogue is good. This is evidence that best-selling pulp fiction can be really well written. It’s the third of Dean Koontz’s novels that I’ve read and easily the best. He’s a prolific author and that can sometimes mean that some of his books aren’t up to the same standard as others. This one though, is definitely worth reading.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the wholesome, god-fearing, family values American ideal is a little heavy-handed. But that is taken in balance with the way that he portrays the creature. To start with it is the stuff of nightmares, a relentless killing machine driven by irrational hate. But over the course of the book we learn how it was created, what was done to it, and how it became aware of what it was and how it experienced the digust of the people who had created it. It’s quite heartbreaking and at the end, I cried for the monster. It’s an achievement to create a chilling horror story and make your audience empathise with the monster. Highly recommended.

A Read of A Dance with Dragons – Part 51

Chapter 50 – Daenerys

Hixdahr zo Loraq has invited the Yunkai to a feast to celebrate and sign the peace pact. Daenerys wonders why it feels like a defeat. He assures her the Yunkish will go soon. The fighting pits will open the next day.

The four sellsword companies have representatives at the feast. Daenerys has sent hostages to the Yunkai camp, including Daario. Hizdahr has sacked Skahaz and Daario is behaving like a child.

After the feast Daenerys goes to a balcony for some air and finds Ben Plumm. He says that he had to pick the winning side because gold’s no good if you’re dead. Daenerys asks Barristan Selmy whether they might turn the mercenaries. Selmy says he’s no good at that sort of thing but he will bring them to her.

Then she takes Quentyn Martell to meet Viserion and Rhaegal, telling her servants to tell Hizdahr that she’s in the privy, if he asks. Quentyn is frightened of the dragons and Daenerys says that she is too. He asks if she means to ride them and she says yes. She says the dragon has three heads and her marriage is not the end of his hopes.

Later she goes to bed with Hizdahr. His lovemaking is perfunctory and afterwards he hopes that they have conceived a child. Daenerys can’t sleep and Missandei comes to give her comfort.

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It feels like defeat because that’s what it is. Daenerys has made no gains and plenty of concessions. We can only hope that the tide turns.

How can she use her dragons? She has had no ideas about training them and using them will just result in total destruction at this stage. These are the responsibilities of power and it seems like it is crushing her.

100 Books in 2011: No Place for a Lady

Somewhat disturbingly, I rather enjoyed No Place for a Lady by Louise Allen. I’ve grown so used to not enjoying Mills & Boon that at first I wondered if my critical faculties were on the fritz.

Bree Mallory runs a stagecoach company. She has aristocratic relations but has to make her own living which she does quite well. One night a driver lets her down and rather than cancel the coach, Bree drives it herself. On the way she is caught up in a race between members of a gentlemen’s club. One of the racers is Max Dysart, a handsome, rich and eligible aristocrat.

Rather nicely, the conflict in their relationship is not driven by internal insecurities, but by the differences in their social status and by Max’s uncertainty over whether his first wife is dead. Unfortunately, the plot twist at the end where someone pretends to be his dead wife is rushed and never really becomes a threat to the inevitable wedding.

Well, I sort of enjoyed most of it, because Louise Allen gets right something that really bugs me about Mills & Boon. She provides her romantic leads with context. There are lots of other characters, several of whom are well drawn and rounded, and the Regency set in London is brought to life quite effectively. Bree is genuinely an independent woman and that’s quite refreshing.

Obviously, I’m not really recommending this as it’s still a romance and not really my thing, but it was ok.

A Read of A Dance with Dragons – Part 50

Chapter 49 – Jon

They’re having a wedding at the Wall. Alys Karstark iss marrying Sigorn, Magnar of Thenn. This marriage is blessed by Rh’llor. Cregan Karstark was only a day behind Alys. Jon met him on the road and took him prisoner.

A raven has gone to Deepwood Motte to warn of Arnolf Karstark’s treachery. The boats are still at Eastwatch. Melisandre says all she sees in her flames is Snow.

Jon goes to see Cregan in the ice cell. He tells him Alys is wed and Arnolf had no right to make a marriage. He says some of Cregan’s men have gone over to the Magnar. And anyone who wishes to can take the black. Cregan refuses.

There is a wedding feast. Axell Florent again enquires about Val and complains that she and Alys should be disposed of to southern lords not to wildlings. Some of the mountain clan lords have turned up. Then there are two blasts of the horn which means wildlings. Jon assumes it is Tormund Giantsbane.

Jon talks to Alys and says that when her stores run low to send him the men and boys. He receives a message saying the boats have left Eastwatch and he is not thrilled by Cotter Pyke’s choice of garrison commander.

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Axell Florent is such a sleaze. I think Alys and Sigorn was a good match. I hope that it is Tormund at the Wall and not anything more sinister. Seems like things are looking up for Jon.

100 Books in 2011: The Left Hand of God

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman is the first of a trilogy following the life of Thomas Cale, a strange boy with a dent in his head and the uncanny ability to anticipate an opponent’s moves.

We meet Cale in the Sanctuary, a sort of monastery/training school for boys who are to become Redeemers. The faith expressed by Redeemers is a thinly veiled version of the Abrahamic religions and the Sanctuary is a brutal environment where the boys are treated with such violence and neglect that many of them don’t survive. Cale is a survivor and what that makes of him is delicately handled, for the most part.

Cale discovers one of the Redeemers dissecting a girl while another girl is tied up waiting for it to be her turn. He kills the Redeemer and then has to escape. He takes with him two associates (friendship is an offence punishable by being beaten to death) because he believes they will suffer once he is discovered missing.

Against the odds, they evade the Redeemers sent to capture them and end up in Memphis, capital city of a nearby Empire. There they discover a world ruled by subtle gradations of status conferred by birth and bloodline. The Chancellor is a talented and intelligent man and recognises that Cale can give them information about the Sanctuary. He sends them to the Empire’s military training academy where they wreak havoc and make some enemies. In passing, Cale meets the daughter of the Marshal of the Empire and falls in love. Said daughter, Arbell Swan-Neck, is kidnapped by the Redeemers in an attempt to draw the Empire into battle. Cale rescues her. The Redeemers attack again and Cale is forced to admit that the tactics they are using are his, but that he doesn’t know what the big picture is. He doesn’t know why the Redeemers are attacking, or really why they do anything. In the end, Cale finds himself back in the possession of the Redeemers.

This is an odd book. It starts off well. The initial chapters introducing us to the Sanctuary and the relationship between the boys are great. They are delightfully disturbing and the environment is solidly evoked. This world seems very real. The writing style is compelling and engaging. Characterisation is good, although less so for the female characters. The action and dialogue are great, keeping the book moving at a nice pace. This first quarter of the book is definitely the best and it is worth reading just for this.

Then it all gets a bit wobbly. The quality of the writing remains high and the style is still compelling. In fact, the writing style is basically what carried me through the rest of the book because there are some weaknesses. The main weakness is the worldbuilding. When the setting is the Sanctuary it’s really good. This is a real place with great detail and an oppressive sense of horror about it. Outside the Sanctuary, everything seems a bit haphazard. Nothing seems to fit together particularly and there is some confusion about where places are in relation to each other.

If the POV was tight third person centred on Cale you could argue that he wouldn’t have the first idea about the world outside the Sanctuary and that it would all be confused. But Hoffman uses a loose third person POV for various characters and frequently slips into an omniscient POV where the authorial voice can be used. His handling of POV is good and the changes flow smoothly. The use of the authorial voice contributes to the engaging nature of the writing style. However it jars badly with the poor worldbuilding. There are POV characters who would know exactly how their world works but they are never used to convey that information to the reader. And there’s no map so you can’t check (although I believe that if worldbuilding is done well a map is unnecessary).

To compound the rather haphazard communication of the worldbuilding, Hoffman randomly throws in elements of the real world, which, to my mind, only adds to the confusion. It starts with a reference to the Norwegians (never followed up), then one to the Middle East, then the Redeemers attack a city called York. I’m wondering if this is more of an alternative history than a fantasy but this is never revealed. (Whilst looking for the image for this post I went on the Left Hand of God website which has a map. It’s not this world.) Towards the end, in a discussion about the cost of war, there is mention of a group of people called Jews who happen to live in a ghetto and lend money.

I know most fantasy worlds are based on elements of the real world and that some authors are better at it than others, but this is just lazy. It feels like he was just making it up as he was going along with absolutely no regard for internal coherence. It’s annoying. But other elements of the book are really good. I don’t really know whether to recommend it or not. I enjoyed it but also was frustrated with it.

A Read of A Dance with Dragons – Part 49

Chapter 48 – Jaime

At the end of A Feast for Crows Jaime had received Cersei’s letter and chosen not to respond. He secured the surrender of Riverrun and is now arriving at Raventree Hall, the last holdout of those who swore for Robb. It is complicated by an historic feud between the Blackwoods and Brackens.

Jaime discovers what Bracken will accept and goes to treat with Blackwood. He reaches a settlement that both will accept but that neither is very happy with. He takes one of the Blackwood boys as a hostage and starts back for King’s Landing.

The boy is very knowledgeable about the feud between the families and the tales he tells Jaime indicate that they are fighting over the crown to a kingdom that hasn’t existed for a thousand years. They stop at a village. All the villagers are hiding in a holdfast and won’t come out. Jaime makes camp.

Then a woman comes riding in. It is Brienne. She says she’s found Arya and he must come quickly as the Hound will kill her.

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TRAP!!! No, Jaime, don’t go. I knew Brienne wasn’t dead – all that pretending to kill people isn’t convincing anymore.

I’m glad Brienne didn’t get killed. This is clearly Catelyn trying to kill Jaime instead.