Shadow and Bone

shadow and boneShadow and Bone is the first in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. Alina Starkov is a scrawny orphan with little past and an uncertain future. As a conscript mapmaker in the First Army of Ravka she is sent across the Fold, a sea of dark magic that destroys all it covers. Her skif is attacked and, in the panic, Alina discovers she has suppressed her magickal powers. Alina is taken to the Darkling, the prince of the Grisha, and taught to use her powers.

The first half of the book is pretty slow and full of frustrating elements. I’m finding insecurity and a lack of self-belief poor obstacles for making protagonists resistant to taking on the challenges presented to them. I know it’s completely realistic and that’s how people feel, but I’m finding it boring in stories. Or maybe it’s just boring if it’s not written well. There’s some cliched mean girls bitchiness between Alina and the more privileged of the other Grisha students. The Darkling is a one hundred and twenty year old magic user and appears to be captivated by Alina. This is somewhat unbelievable, given what we know about both characters, and I was happy to discover this was misdirection.

I’ve read some reviews that suggest the Russian elements of the setting weren’t very convincing and I don’t know enough to judge myself. Alina’s immediate surroundings are well described, but the sense of the wider world was vague. I liked that Bardugo chose something different to inspire her fantasy world and nothing struck me as out of place.

The second half of the book was much better. The conflict becomes much more meaningful and the pace picks up. Alina’s understanding of the world is flipped over and she is on the run. It’s quite tense and I found myself nearly missing my stop on a couple of occasions.

It’s not the most skillfully written book but it’s not awful. It’s written in first person from Alina’s point of view but never gets right inside her head. I would rather it had been in third person. On the whole, though, I liked this. It’s a slow start but a cracking finish. I do like an exciting ending and I appreciated the twists in the middle. If you’re looking for a change of pace in your fantasy reading this could be just the thing.

The Bees

BeesI love my kindle. It’s much better not having to carry around several books and I run out of something to read much less frequently. I still read and buy physical books but I don’t think reading on the kindle is a less rich experience. The one downside of the kindle, though, is I can’t see what other people are reading. Maybe a display panel could be added to the back, because I quite often read books that I’ve seen people reading on the train.

The Bees, by Laline Paull, is one of those books. It’s about a swarm of bees and describes a cycle of their lives. It’s told from the point of view of Flora 717, a worker bee who is able to transcend the bees’ caste system and take on several roles from nursery nurse to forager.

Paull’s world is based on some facts about bees but is essentially magical realist in tone. The bees are anthropomorphised and the hive is turned into a golden palace. It does require some suspension of disbelief but if you’re prepared to give yourself over to this world it is truly lovely.

In order to relate the events of the book, Flora has to be able to move out of the caste she’s born into and this is unusual. Most bees have their role and stick to it. Except foragers. Any bee can become a forager. But Flora is special and only she can save the hive. Flora isn’t so much a character as a device, but for this type of novel, it works. It’s not perfect, and the lack of any real danger to Flora lets the book down in a couple of places. Point of view slips towards the end and an authorial voice intrudes.

I didn’t like the prologue and epilogue which offer a human view of the hive. The book would have been better without them, and the epilogue in particular was overly sentimental.

I enjoyed the world-building. I was completely sucked into the book and found it beautiful, lovely, and captivating. Paull evokes both devotion and menace very well.

There are some weaknesses to the book but, overall, I enjoyed it. It’s unusual, and what’s good is really good. And there’s a happy ending, which was the perfect choice.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: Wolfsangel

I’ve been on blog hiatus for a little while as I was on holiday in Vienna. Which was lovely. You may also have noticed from the sidebar that I’m running a little behind on the 100 Books in 2011 challenge. This is because I have been re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire before A Dance with Dragons is released on 12th July. Have I mentioned that I’m excited?

Anyway, while in the beautiful city of Vienna, I read Wolfsangel by M. D. Lachlan. I had been looking forward to this for some time, having read a number of rave reviews, and generally enjoying stories about Vikings.

The story follows the lives of twin boys separated at birth, one of which grows up as the son of a lord and the other is raised by wolves. They find each other as young men and their destinies are entwined with that of a young healer whom they both love. At the same time a witch is trying to protect herself from being killed by a god by bringing forth another god, using the bodies of the twins to achieve her goal.

My synopsis doesn’t really do it justice, but to be clearer about the plot would be to give away what happens. The plot is elegantly convoluted and the twists and switches are wonderful. People are not who they think they are but the reader only comes to this relevation along with the character so it is deliciously surprising.

The point of view is interesting. It’s omniscient third-person, which I’m not usually keen on, but this is done so well it really highlights why I don’t normally like it. Lachlan starts with a limited third-person pov, then pulls back to a gods-eye view and then circles down into another limited third-person pov. Everytime the perspective changes this happens. There’s no head hopping. While the perspective changes can happen quite quickly and we may visit more than one head in a scene, there is always at least a paragraph with an authorial tone that separates them. This is how it should be done and how it so often isn’t. It is controlled yet appears effortless.

Something else I enjoyed about the book was its lyrical style. At one level this is a re-telling of a myth and the language suits that. It takes a few pages to settle into the rhythm and, once you’re there, it’s hypnotic. I think this is especially notable in a book that is quite earthy and gory. It takes some skill to show the torments Lachlan visits upon his characters in such poetic language.

The characterisation, dialogue and setting are all good. The pacing is well handled. This is an incredibly well-written novel and a great story. I loved it. And considering that I read it in the midst of re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire (which is amazing) and it still stood out to me, that makes it all the better. Do read this.

100 Books in 2011 review: Dead as a Doornail

Dead as a Doornail is the fifth in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series. In honour of the fact that there’s a review for each one on this blog I’ve created a new category just for these. (Having just done that, it appears I missed one. There’s no review for Dead to the World, which I’m sure I read, but I don’t keep books so can’t go back to it. Annoying.)

Anyway, moving on. When I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse series it was because I was really enjoying True Blood and I was curious to see how the TV series would be different to the book. With season 2, True Blood diverged quite a bit so it was not really possible to compare it with Living Dead in Dallas. There is one point that is still worth picking up.

That point is about character. Almost all of the supporting characters have greater depth in True Blood. I said that I thought this was a combination of first person POV in the books and the greater space for character development in the TV series. By book five, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s really what’s going on. The characters that have been in the books from the beginning are still quite thin, with the exception of Eric who is more real. It was notable in this book that the characters that are here for just this story are a name, a brief physical description and a tic or two. While the writing is noticeably more competent than it was in the first book, characterisation isn’t much better. Having read lots of first person POV books in the last couple of years (and having been paying attention to the writing) I don’t think that this POV necessarily leads to poor characterisation. Some writers manage to do it well.

What really rankled was the poverty of female characters. There was a lot about Sookie that made her a great female character to start with and I felt that some of this is becoming lost. Tara is Sookie’s best friend but she has barely any impact on the story. In this novel, it felt like she was only there as a plot device. The best friend relationship is never established except for Sookie telling us this. The two of them don’t seem to spend time together and Tara is not who Sookie goes to for emotional support. She is certainly not the intriguing, complex character that she is in True Blood. The same is true for Arlene. In Dead as a Doornail, Sookie is surrounded by various supernatural men who are desperate to get with her. They are literally lining up. Which basically makes this a book about a hot chick who has all the dudes after her and no meaningful relationships with anyone. Disappointing. And much less feminist than it was because it reduces Sookie to an object to be possessed.

Sookie’s feminist credentials also slip in terms of the plot of Dead as a Doornail. In Dead until Dark, Sookie investigates, takes action, and eventually saves herself and I loved that. In Dead as a Doornail, stuff is done to Sookie, she’s manipulated into participating into things, and other people save her. The plot is that someone is shooting shifters and her brother is implicated. Or at least, it says he is on the back of the book but I didn’t feel that came across particularly well. In fact, the culprit is a minor character who appears to have the red shirt role. At the end, I felt a bit cheated by the resolution of the plot.

In spite of these major problems, I did still enjoy Dead as a Doornail. It’s an easy read and not very long. It’s fun and undemanding.

100 Books in 2011 review: The Heroes

This one is hot off the press! For me at least. Every so often a book comes out that I’m so excited about I buy it in hardback as soon as it’s published. I’m a fan of Joe Abercrombie’s work and his latest book, The Heroes, came out at the end of January. I bought it and read it immediately.

The Heroes follows three characters during a three day battle at a henge called the Heroes. Bremer dan Gorst is on the side of the Union, has lost everything and is trying to redeem himself through the only thing that ever gave him any sense of self-worth – fighting. Curnden Craw has been a warrior all his life and now he’s tired and struggling to work out what the right thing to do it. Prince Calder is a dispossessed prince trying to figure out how to make himself King of the North without doing any actual fighting himself.

This is a book about heroism in all its glory and stupidity. It’s also about the horrible reality that is lost in the glare of heroism but without which it wouldn’t be possible. Abercrombie pretty much does everything well but his stand-out skill is characterisation. His main characters are not always very likeable; what they are is identifiable. He reveals their inner conflicts, fears, self-delusion and insecurities in a way that opens them up to us as real people. We may not like them but we understand them. I particularly enjoyed the layering of Bremer dan Gorst’s crippling loneliness throughout his POV chapters.

I like the way the story uses several POVs. As well as the three main characters there are three minor characters who have story arcs through the book and a handful of others who get the odd occasion to talk. There is one chapter, called Casualties, where each scene is from the point of view of an individual who gets killed in one of the engagements. A character has a scene, is killed, and then the POV switches to the head of the character who killed them. And is in turned killed and the POV passes to the next killer. This lasts for six characters and the last is one of the main characters. I honestly didn’t know whether he would be last, or whether he would die. Abercrombie doesn’t necessarily keep his characters alive to the end of the book. He’s prepared to do what the story requires and my heart was in my mouth for the whole of that scene. Genius.

Abercrombie is a visual writer who creates scenes quite filmicly, probably as a result of his previous life as a film editor. His action scenes are full of detail, movement, and sensory information. The worldbuilding is good, but lighthanded, at least for me. I’ve read all of Abercrombie’s books and the world is familiar to me. My only criticism would be the lack of female characters. Abercrombie writes women well – meaning that he writes them as people who happen to be female – and has created some really memorable female characters. There were only two (aside from background characters) in The Heroes, who were great, but had small roles and I would have liked more balance.

The ending was really a mix of endings. Each of the six main and minor characters come to a turning point in their lives. Most get what they wanted but find that it’s not quite what they thought it would be. Two thought they wanted a life that was different from what they had, but when they get it, find that what they had was better. One finds that getting what she wants comes with a very high price. Another finds that getting what he wants doesn’t solve his problems or make his life any better. One gets what he thought he wanted but gives it up when he sees that what he wants really comes in a different package. And Sargeant Tunny finds himself right back where he started. I find it insightful and realistic. It’s satisfying because it speaks to emotional and psychological truth.

I loved it. This is modern fantasy at its finest. And I can’t wait for the next one. Highly recommended.

Thoughts on reading: Wolf Hall

I’ve been putting this one off since the end of September. It felt a bit like hard work. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was the Book Club book for September but this time I can’t blame the Book Club for making me read something I wouldn’t have touched otherwise because there was already a copy on book mountain when it was suggested.

It was winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize and I don’t often read those, but sometimes they pique my interest. Reading this was a strange experience and I think the reason is that there are a lot of things that I like about this book but in the whole, I didn’t enjoy it.

I loved the character of Cromwell. Mantel made him really sympathetic without compromising the hardness of his character. The description was lush and vivid, full of sound, smell, touch and movement, and using metaphor to work every ounce of worldbuilding out of it. It was loaded with symbolism – and I did like that because I felt I understood what was being conveyed. Sometimes I read books that are heavily symbolical and I feel like I speak a different language to the author because, although I recognise that an object is a symbol, I’m clueless as to what it’s a symbol of. Not in this case and I found it quite instructive in how symbolism can be used in a way that supports description and setting. Rather than being wanky.

The viewpoint in Wolf Hall is quite experimental. It is in limited third person and is so tightly held to Cromwell that it is almost first person. It’s also in the present tense which is hard to sustain over 160,000 words. That was impressive but I wondered if this was the reason I found this book very hard to read. It was so slow. It took me a good couple of weeks and I spend at least two hours a day reading and I’m a fast reader. But I recently read another book in the present tense, of about 140,000 words, and that was a very quick read. Both would also be considered literary fiction, so it’s not the genre. The length of it was off-putting to some members of the book club, but what’s 160,000 words in epic fantasy? Nothing! Anyhow,  it was hard work. So much so that I had to stop in the middle and read a Charlaine Harris. I think what Mantel did with the viewpoint and tense was really interesting but it spoilt the enjoyment of the story for me.

I liked the title, but in the end I felt that that was misleading. We don’t get to Wolf Hall until the end of the book and although in the author interview at the back of the book, Mantel says that Wolf Hall is a metaphor for Henry’s court, I didn’t get that. And given that her use of metaphor was so effective throughout I don’t believe that she meant that. I think she just liked it as a title and used it even though it wasn’t quite right for the book.

There was a lot I liked about this book and I wanted to enjoy it. Because it was so slow and such hard work to get anywhere with, I didn’t enjoy it. In spite of all the things I liked about it. In spite of a great character, brilliant dialogue and gorgeous writing. I was frustrated and disappointed.

Thoughts on reading: Twelve

This came to my attention at alt.fiction 2010. During a panel it was held up as an example of a perfectly good novel that couldn’t sell due to the market. With the upswing of the horror market, it found a publisher after having been with an agent for something like four years. I was keen to see what Twelve by Jasper Kent was like.

This is an historical horror; a vampire story set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. I found the setting quite convincing, in terms of both time and place. Not that I know much about Russian history, so I’m probably quite easy to convince in that regard. The dialogue felt appropriate although I noticed a few conspicuously modern terms slipping into the narration.

The vampires were the opposite of sparkly. They are returned to subhuman killing machines with superior strength and speed, yet seem quite easily dispatched by the hero once he’s convinced of what they are. There are some nice moments of suspicion and betrayal among the hero and his friends.

Unfortunately, I found that the choice of viewpoint flattened the story someone. It is a first person narrator told by the hero, who is a man traumatised by torture in his past and by the choices he has to make in the present. His response is to become shut off from emotion. Which is a realistic response but as he’s the narrator it leads to an emotionally flat story. The reader doesn’t feel the horror because the narrator can’t. It nags at the edge of the consciousness and the narrator acknowledges that he should have more emotional sensation than he does (although this was a bit ‘tell’ for me) but he can’t feel what he should feel because it will overwhelm him. For me, as a reader, this felt distancing. I think it would have benefitted from first person narration by a sidekick or from third person narration.

Having said that, there was an excellent twist at the end, I did enjoy it and I will read the sequel.

Thoughts on reading: Lords of the North

Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell has Vikings in it, so it is automatically brilliant. Also, Cornwell is one of my favourite authors.

One thing that characterizes Cornwell’s writing is a tendency to end a scene or chapter with a snappy short sentence. For example ‘The gods were not happy.’ Sometimes it’s a cliffhanger, sometimes it’s foreshadowing and sometimes it adds drama. It serves to drive the story forward and makes his books hard to put down!

This is written in first person POV. It seems like I’m reading a lot that’s in the first person lately. I don’t know if that’s coincidence or a trend. In this case, the main character is an old man telling the story of his youth. The voice is very strong. It’s confident and self-assured, and well suited to the character. What is different to many first person narrator’s is that there isn’t that much internal monologue or exposition. The story is largely told through scenes with solid description and great action. What internal monologue there is, is very effectively used to show character.

I really enjoyed this and Cornwell has a style of writing that I particularly enjoy.

Thoughts on reading: Whit

Whit by Iain Banks has been on book mountain for a while. Years in fact. I was put off Iain Banks’ mainstream fiction by not being able to get through A Song of Stone.

It’s a slow start and I only stuck with it because this is my work. If I was reading for entertainment, I probably would have put it down well before I got halfway through. Not that there’s anything wrong with it – Banks is a fine writer. It’s just that the story wasn’t compelling. I know what I like; vikings, vampires, adventure and sex. There was none of that. It was a story of a insular community and their relation with the outside world and it wasn’t that interesting to me. Until about halfway through. Then it becomes clear that certain people are up to no good and there is a bit of a mystery at the centre of the story.

So, the second half of the book is better, but I don’t think I liked it that much. Which is not really the point as we’re here to talk about the writing. The main thing I noticed about this book was the worldbuilding, perhaps because I don’t expect it to be so obvious in mainstream fiction. Banks is describing the world of a group of people who live in a way that makes them quite alien to ‘normal’ people. He carries this off well. It is in the first person and the (sole) POV character, Isis, is completely invested in her way of life. She is special in this world, the very opposite of an outcast, and it takes several large event to make her start questioning the status quo. The worldbuilding takes place via Isis, and as she’s not an outsider, Banks has the discipline to convey her total acceptance of her world. It is the outside world, the contemporary world, that is portrayed as strange. Her strangeness, the weirdness of her world is shown to us by her skewed interpretation of the people and events around her. It was a skillful demonstration of worldbuilding that brought the reader into the world, rather than leaving them watching from the edges.

The other element of note is almost the flipside of the first. Choosing a protagonist who is at the centre of her world, with high status, who feels loved and accepted, enabled excellent worldbuilding. But it also meant that shaking that belief in the goodness and rightness of the worldbuilding would take some significant events and that had to be done convincingly. I feel that contributed to the slow pace of the unfolding of the plot. Banks spent the first half of the book building Isis and her world up and then the second half tearing it down. I think I would have prefered more foreshadowing than Banks gave us.

In non-fiction, I read The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. I thought it would be about how humans are biologically wired for faith, but is actually more about how beliefs affect the science of biology. Some interesting ideas, if not a totally convincing theory.

Thoughts on reading: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin is book one of A Song of Ice and Fire which features in my top ten favourite books of all time. This is the third time I’ve read it and this time I was able to get past the awe and look at the writing. Well, sometimes. There was still a lot of awe; I love this book and its sequels. I can’t wait for the next one, A Dance of Dragons, and I can’t wait for the HBO series coming next year.

So, getting over the love, what did I notice about the writing? First of all, there’s a lot of backstory in the early chapters. It’s very tightly related to the story of the novel and is actually quite sparing. There’s enough to create the sense of a large world with a rich history, without overwhelming current events. It’s usually done a few sentences at a time to add detail but occasionally, one of the POV characters spends a few pages reminiscing. There are two things that I think makes this amount of backstory work. One, chapters are organised by POV and there are a lot of POV characters. This means that each character can give a bit of backstory relevant to them and that past events can be perceived differently by different people. The reader gets to piece together backstory from several versions of the same event. The second thing is that the backstory stays relevant to the POV character. They only tell the reader what matters to them. Every piece of exposition is doing at least two jobs; it’s adding backstory as well as giving characterisation or world building.

The other thing that Martin does really well is characters. His POV characters are great but one expects that. It’s the little characters, the ones that only appear once or twice, the ones that only have a tiny role. They are invested with as much personality and uniqueness as any of the main characters. There is not one that is a cardboard, cookie-cutter character.

He also has a lot of description in the novel. His locations are vividly realised. Again, this information isn’t dropped on us in one lump. Each character has something to say about where they are which builds up to a detailed, solid setting. The description is put to work to support characterisation and theme. I noticed that I tend to skip over description as a reader, as I want to get to the action, so I tried to slow down and pay attention to the descriptive writing. It’s made me think a lot about how I can improve that in my work-in-progress.

All in all, this is a masterpiece, from one of the greatest fantasy writers there is. I loved it as much the third time round as I did the first time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.