Monday, December 27, 2010

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt

This is insanely overdue. Understaffed Workplace and Sick Family Members and Visits to the Beautiful City of Cambridge and Christmas Shopping and Best Friend Catch-Up Drinking Binges and New WoW Expansions and Two-Year-Olds-With-A-Lot-Of-Will and Five-Inches-Of-Snow have transpired to make this a very very late review. I finished this book before my birthday, which was 22nd November. I'm sure you found a way to fill the gaping void with which you were left in my absence, and I'm proud of you. Moving away from this apology which had more in the way of explanation than apology, we will get to a review.

I generally do not go into bookshops with a "thing" in mind. Unless I'm looking for a specific title, I go into bookshops to browse and see what grabs me by the eyes and refuses to let go. In this instance, however, I wanted fantasy steam-punk, because I just did. I fear I may not have gotten as far away from Spring Heeled Jack as I'd like, or maybe Frankenstein sent me fleeing back to less "omgthismightactuallyhappen" territory, or maybe the obscene amount of points on my Waterstones card left me seeking productive retail. Whatever the reason, I had a shopping list in my head, which made life difficult for about an hour and a fifteen minutes while I looked for a cover that told me "This is What You're Looking For". I finally fell upon The Kingdom Beyond the Waves because it is turquoise, which is my favourite colour, and there is a tiny deep sea diver on the cover. This is very important. I will not have you judging my methods. I may also have been sick of looking and it may have met my every requirement, these are not as important as the tiny deep sea diver. Nothing is that important.

Look at how tiny!

  Here is the blurb:

A thrilling yarn of perilous quests, dastardly deeds and deadly intrigue...

Professor Amelia Harsh is obsessed with finding the lost civilization of Camlantis, a legendary perfect society. So when she returns from her latest archeological misadventure and finds that the university council has stripped her of her position in retaliation for her heretical research, she accepts an offer of patronage from the unconventional but incredibly wealthy Abraham Quest.

Quest believes he knows where the ruins of Camlantis lie, and he will pay Amelia handsomely to verify their existence. But as she travels deep into the dark heart of the jungle aboard an ancient u-boat crewed by an untrustworthy gang of freed convicts, the expedition is soon under threat not only from the hostile environment, but an unexpected and deadly enemy.  Meanwhile Amelia has no idea that her quest for the perfect society may bring her own world to the brink of destruction...


The story starts with Amelia mid-dig, with Mombiko her "ex-slave" assistant and some not-so-subtle-but-still-very-interesting talk about the "oil hordes" and how they destroyed the eponymous perfect city-state. The oil hordes were brutal, obsessed with the oil they needed for their machines which they needed for domination which they needed for money. It's not delicate, but I got the point and it's an important contrast to the apparently selfless ideals of Camlantis. Then they are attacked by treasure hunters (where there are traps, there's treasure), for reasons that don't seem important to the story as a whole, Mombiko dies, and Amelia is left stranded alone in the desert. She is rescued by a mysterious woman and then fired, it is sad.

Contrary to the impression given by the blurb, the story is told from several points of view, which is important and wonderful, as you see the entirety of the world Hunt has created, and learn many aspects of a very complex story. However, it wasn't until about a third of the way through that I learned Amelia had a kind of super-power. I don't want to be a characters BFF, but it seemed like something that should probably have been mentioned early on in the relationship. I can't decide if I missed it because I read quickly, or if it was meant to be: "Surprise! She isn't just determined and intelligent and a damned good fighter, she has super powers!" I did like it, and it's an asset to an awesome character, it just caught me off guard.

The other characters are also brilliant. The reclusive Cornelius Fortune and his avian ally Septimoth are adorable and loyal and a detective team to rival many others. They, like everybody else, have enough dark secrets and tragic pasts to satisfy even my "but, we keep switching people!" distress. Despite the switching between characters, I feel quite comfortable with each of the people into whose lives we are dropped. They feel established as characters rather than just necessary for the plot. Fortune's  housekeeper, Damson Beeton is surprising and wonderful and one of many references to British culture/history scattered throughout. I forget most of them, but they're there and they're subtle but they made me smile.

Mrs. Beeton, our housekeeper's namesake. Via. Wikipedia
 There are moral messages and dire warnings galore, which is I think why I found talk of the Oil Horde so interesting. Jackals (for that is Amelia's country) is clearly set on a far distant earth, and the message is not dissimilar to that of Spring Heeled Jack. This being primarily caution and "Just because you can it doesn't mean you should." and  "Ambition can go too far." and "You'd probably be better off if you'd just stayed at home." and "Don't mess with Amelia." Ok, perhaps some of those are my own constructions, but the consequences of advanced technology and vast wealth and insane dogma are writ large for all to see. Abraham Quest, who is a complex character and perhaps one of my favourites, is the clearest embodiment of this need for caution. He is brilliant and ambitious but with no notion of consequence or moderation. His ultimate aim and the name he shares with THE Abraham was a nifty little parallel, I thought. In terms of steam-punk-as-far-future-back-to-basics, the hints of wrecked super advanced technology, for example the bio-machinery left to go feral were terrifying and wonderful.

There's much I haven't touched on. Partly because the finer details, the ones that really make the book, are lost in the time since I read it. The things that I really loved and the things that bothered me have stuck around. The extreme emphasis on the FEMALE bodyguards and the FEMALE warriors was nice, it's satisfying to not have purely decorative female characters and I appreciate it. However it felt heavy handed to the point where it almost had the opposite effect. The religion of Jackals is also intriguing, the deliberate insertion of the phrase "oh god!" or similar with the Jackelian equivalent of "thank circle!" etc felt a little bit forced, but once the "religion" was explained, I felt compelled to forgive all. I loved the Steammen, the robot people, and a bajillion other things. The sparse details included in this blog are also an unfortunate side effect of my abhorrence of spoilers, so you'll just have to see for yourself.

The main thing I didn't like was the gasp!shock!surprise! fact that our plucky archaeologist is actually a special snowflake with a background that JUST SO HAPPENS to make about a third of the book possible. It was a teensy bit deus ex machina-ish, but I think the book gets away with it. Just. There is also a giant dinosaur called a Killasaurus Max (or similar), and that just rubbed me the wrong way. It is a genuinely frightening section of the book, so I'll let that go too I think. The publishers may sleep easy, because my opinions will affect the career of an established and very successful author. Obviously.

I hadn't heard of Stephen Hunt before now, although a brief google search will tell anybody that he's actually written tons and tons. I plan to read the other two set in this universe, and may or may not check out his 'flintlock fantasy' stuff, as Temeraire left me luke-warm. We shall see.

(Note from the Future! I got Rise of the Iron Moon from the boy-thing for Christmas!)

Let's see the cover reviews!

'Compulsive reading.' -The Guardian

Well, yes. I was compelled to continue! That's really the only reason anybody would even finish anything, but this was a fair bitmore compulsifying than other things.

'More than a dash of Jules entertaining and imaginative journey unto the unknown.' -Death Ray

Jules Verne! Yes. This is a thing that this book is like. I was both entertained and using my imagination all the while!! It's definitely an authentic adventure story, epic and self-mocking in turns. I imagine if Amelia and Indie ever got together for a dig, it'd be spectacular.

I loved this book, and it was one of those wonderful genuine experiences of highly concentrated escapism. Much love. 4 Mell-Heads. One was bitten off by a Killasaurus Max, then I forgot about it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This is a book I bought just over a year ago. The timing seemed perfect. It was just before Halloween and I was taking a fascinating class called Film, Horror and the Body which among other things rekindled my love for what a lot of people like to call “wussy” horror, and what I call gothic horror. It touched on many thoughts, caused me to develop fascinating ones of my own and led to me getting a first in my degree because I did a presentation on the awesomeness of Sigourney Weaver in Alien Ressurection and wrote a 5000 word paper on vagina-dentata. Fast forward a year, I’m reading as much as ever I was and too poor to add much to my ‘to-read’ pile. I get to this book around the same time as Halloween approaches yet again and Mark Gatiss (yes, Lucifer Box’s daddy) is doing a stupendous series of documentaries for the BBC about horror movies. Enter Frankenstein. Enter Shelley. Enter sleepless nights and escorted walks through darkened alley ways. 

Nosferatu Via. Wikipedia. Yay public domain horror ^__^

The writing, my mindset and the micro-zeitgeist of late October in the UK made this the perfect read for so many reasons. The blurb:

“Life and death appeared to me the ideal bounds which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”
Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s immensely powerful contribution to the ghost stories which she, Percy Shelley and Byron devised on wet summer in Switzerland. Its protagonist is a young student of natural philosophy, who learns the secret of imparting life to a creature constructed from relics of the dead, with horrific consequences.
Frankenstein confronts some of the most feared innovations of evolutionism: topics such as degeneracy, hereditary disease, and mankind’s status as a species of animal. The text used here is from the 1818 edition, which is a mocking expose of leaders and achievers who leave desolation in their wake, showing humanity its choice- to live co-operatively, or to die of selfishness. It is also a black comedy, and harder and wittier than the 1831 version with which we are more familiar. 

I haven’t actually read the 1831 version (I intend to) but this seems a good start in outlining the differences. Apparently the fact that Frankenstein’s lover is his cousin is deleted in the 1831 version so that they are not blood-relations. There are, I’m sure, many differences both blatant and subtle, and I will discover them on my own when I experience the more widely read version. For now though, I deal with this version. 

The narrative starts, as anybody who has seen one of the many film adaptations will know, with Robert Walton’s account of his snow-bound ship. This part is important because you get to see Frankenstein from an outsider’s perspective which makes him a more sympathetic character. His creation sees him as evil and he himself is tortured by the arrogance of his genius. From those perspectives, he is pathetic at best. The Captain’s admiration of how educated and articulate and pleasant he is, despite his obvious troubles, reminds the reader that he is ultimately a brilliant man who made a terrible mistake. Dr Jekyll tapped me on the shoulder several times as I read.

The definite, overwhelming, message of the book is that Frankenstein’s genius runs away with him and causes all of his problems. He arrives at University having studied ancient masters of natural philosophy, only to be mocked. He is given a list of new, modern texts and “that application, which at first had been a matter of duty and resolution, now became so ardent and eager, that the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory.” (Why yes, I was compelled by the beauty of the language to bookmark pages. Tyvm for asking.) It’s rather luddite in its outlook, and Shelley herself was said to be sympathetic with the luddites and their plight. As the blurb says, it’s a biting critique of those who let their power and inventiveness run away with them. (Like here)

This point is made, and beautifully, by Shelley’s portrayal of the monster as a product of his circumstances. A huge section of the book is devoted to the monster’s point of view- his reaction to the beauty he sees in the world and in his own existence, as wretched as it is destined to become. His kindness and his sympathy for other human creatures is touching and childlike and very human. He does not begin his awful life as a monster. He is driven to it by the rejection of his creator and of every other human he encounters. He attaches himself to a family, hiding from them and doing vital chores for them in the night. He grows to love and trust them, and it is from them that he learns to speak and understand the world. When he eventually approaches them, they cast him out as readily as anybody else. His anger, his resentment and his thirst for companionship drive him to violence and monstrous acts. The parallel with the luddites is obvious. Their desperation is what drives them to acts of vandalism, not anything inherently violent in their make-up. Interestingly this was changed in some film adaptations where it was implied that Igor (who does not exist in the book), when sent to get a brain, accidentally picks up the one marked “insane” or “abnormal”, and what Frankenstein creates actually is a monster, and not just a very ugly human driven to evil acts by the world. It's an important difference.

A creation of Frankenstein's from 1910 Via. Wikipedia

 The horror element, and the one that, really seriously in real life, made me ask a person headed the same way to walk with me down a dark shortcut, was the way that Frankenstein’s mistakes haunt him in the physical manifestation of his creation. The lack of description of the parts used or his actual physical features mean your brain gets to fill in its own horrifying blanks, and when Frankenstein considers disobeying the monster’s request, he will appear at a window, or in the shadows. His conscience is a reanimated corpse, following him around the world. This, more than the actual creation of the monster, is what made me act like a giant wuss. It’s chilling.

Movie Poster for the 1957 Adapatation starring Christopher Lee. Qualifies under Fair Use- scaled down copy of poster for discussion/critique. May contain nuts. Not intended as medical advice. Although you probably should try not to faint as a general rule. 

This is another one of those books that had me highlighting gorgeous passages, and I loathe Shelley for having written this at 19 years of age. 

By degrees, I made the discovery of a still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. -The Creature.

Guh. The creature is all of us, reacting to the world with disgust, fury and awe.

There are no cover reviews, for ‘tis a classic. This is quite long enough as it is. Frankenstein has become one of my favourite novels. It moved me, it terrified me and is at the same time a powerful political statement. It is the first science fiction novel, although it's not quite as fanciful or unlikely as it was then. It was written by a 19 year old. FML.

Five Mell Heads, sewn on extra tight.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Black Butterfly by Mark Gatiss

This review marks rather a special time in the life of this blog. I promised from pretty much day one that I’d review this series. It’s one of my favourites and there was a WHOLE BOOK that I refrained from reading just so I could share my honest first reaction with you people. This is that honest first reaction, although honestly it’s a little delayed because I’m easily distracted.There have been side-bar promises for months and months, actually more than a year, that I would review this entire series, and here I am at the end of it. I’d promise something spectacular and climactic, but that would be a massive lie. It’s a review like most others, but it’s significant none the less. I’m just excited to have finally gotten something done (I do tend to dawdle) and have potentially a lot/some people know that I did get around to it eventually. Okay, Lucifer Box the Third. Here we go :D

Knave. Joker. Queen.
Lucifer Box is back! (Eeee!)
The hero of ‘The Vesuvius Club” and “The Devil in Amber” returns with an artistic license to kill and the deadliest mission of his career. A new Queen has been crowned, an old enemy has resurfaced and the world is about to be embraced by the lethal wings of the Black Butterfly. 

This blurb is exciting! It seems like it’s everything the last two books are. Risque, silly, sexy and exciting (in so many senses of the word), it is a very full blurb. The general tone of the book is a lot darker than the previous two, the name in itself sort of prepares you for that rather than having the blurb injected with AND ALSO THINGS SUCK SOMETIMES. It’s subtle, so I was dreading the inevitable sadness while being reassured by the blurb that there are good times ahead too. Lucifer Box should not be sad, it doesn’t seem right. The Black Butterfly/Le Papillion Noir is the famous French term for depression. It’s also, conveniently, the name being bandied about when some old (and by old I mean elderly) colleagues of Box’s start acting very strangely indeed. It seems, to my eyes, that a clever way of confronting the terrible heaviness of a that particular mental illness/a mystery is to give them the same name and have Box confront them both in equally daring and balls-out ways, as is his wont. 

The start of the book is as risque as the series gets. A dashing Lucifer and an erect nipple meet in unlikely, extravagant and dangerous circumstances. Sadly though, this is the dream of the aged (no longer with that merciful -ing to soften the blow) Lucifer. He’s dozing. DOZING, internet. This will never do, but there it goes, doing and being. Perhaps I should probably say that it will do, it did do, but it shouldn’t. That would be excessively wordy and therefore unnecessary. Good thing I didn’t, then. 
Box deals with age on his own terms, reacting with extreme distaste to being the venerable Lucifer Box.  We learn of his life since ‘The Devil in Amber’ in dribs and drabs, the most amusing of these initial tit-bits being that he has a son (left on the door-step of course, no word of the mother, naturally) and that he has named him as only the Box family seem able. I shant spoil it, it’s wonderful surprise. 

As always, there is a wonderful sub-plot with a surprising link to the main crime. I always fear that by mentioning surprises I’ll force your brain to be sub-consciously working on it all the while you’re reading (assuming of course my inane keyboard tappings ever convince anybody other than the wonderful Alex to read anything) and you’ll inadvertently join the dots before the proper time, spoiling the reveal before it’s due. The only thing that makes a twist clever is the fact that it remains secret until it isn’t anymore. Secrets aren’t really remarkable other than the fact that they’re hidden. My fear stems mostly from the fact that The Mother had Sixth Sense recommended to her with the words “There’s a brilliant twist at the end!” and she subsequently figured it out about thirty minutes in. It is not an enjoyable film when you already know the thing. In the interests of being as unspoilery as possible, I shall tell you things what I liked that are unrelated to the plot.

Whitley Bey

This is a somewhat important character, a large geordie blokie. It is because of his involvement that I discovered that Mark Gatiss is from my neck of the woods. WE ARE PRACTICALLY RELATED. Or something. It was exciting news for me, anyway. Bey is important and likeable and has an awesome gold coin instead of an eye. The fact that his name is a play on the [positive adjective] local beach is just another bauble on this branch of wonder, which actually leads me to realise that the names have become less fantastical as the series goes on. This is sad. Whitley, thankfully, is an exception. His da’ was a brickie and he’s from South Shields, that’s where I’m from. IT’S LIKE IT WAS WRITTEN ABOUT ME, YOU GUYS! Except that my dad isn’t and never has been a brickie and I have never called anybody ‘hinnie’ in my life. My nana does that. It did give me a sad little local thrill when he was geet proper geordie-like all over Box’s actually proper speech. Like the sort I got when Sarah Millican said she was claggy on TV last week. It’s the little things, okay? Joe McElderry does not count in my mind as having made anything about my home town anything near remarkable. Catherine Cookson maybe so, but one gets a little tired of having her name plastered all over everything. It’s a constant guilty reminder that I have yet to experience anything more of her work than six week long dramas with appalling accent-work on all sides. Only about two sentences of this were actually about why Whitley Bey is an awesome character. NEVER MIND.

Kingdom Kum
Okay, maybe I lied about the names.


She is still here! I’m not sure I’ve given her the proper amount of love in previous reviews, but she is wonderful. Reliable, solid and present as ever. She is the rock upon which Lucifer sharpens his brilliance. As close to a wife as he was ever likely to get, I love her. Delilah party in my head!

This review lacks the amount of Lucifer’s own wit that I would ordinarily include, but I’m writing this on an impromptu trip. The fact that I came quite as prepared as I did (underwear, make-up, plastic explosives etc etc) is a miracle, but I forgot to bring the book I’m actually reviewing. Perhaps I’ll add some later and you’ll never see this. It’s unlikely, I’m anxious to get this posted. Although it occurs to me now that I need the book for cover-review purposes, perhaps Amazon can help me out on that score.

This is already really long. Quick, Amazon, the cover reviews!!!

Be seduced by Lucifer, you wouldn’t be the first  Daily Express

Translation: These books are about SEX sometimes -titter- -titter at titter-

Darkly erudite and fiendishly unputdownable- Lucifer box is the most likeable scoundrel since Flashman Jasper Fforde

I’m sure that quote was on another cover before, it’s still right, although the clumsy neologism makes me a bit sad. I can’t really comment because my own special abuse of the English language is put into a bad light if I mention it at all, but I already did. Put that red pen away, this is my house.

Belongs to the lineage with stretches from Sherlock Holmes to the indestructible James Bond. Giddily inventive and packed with delirious incident. TLS

Well, Mark Gatiss’ recent and awesome work on the Sherlock series for the BBC shows that Holmes was definitely an influence. I’ve not actually read any James Bond (I will get to it one day) but I imagine that’s a good point as well. I agree on the grounds that my speculation is accurate. 

Ok, brief cover review arguments but this was already nearing Teal Dear proportions.
Overall this makes me as happy as the others. The ending particularly, which I can’t really talk about, is a really wonderful one. It’s the bitterest and sweetest and funniest. It encapsulates Lucifer so wonderfully in a way that you’ll miss him but know he isn’t really gone. I got teary, I won’t lie. 
Four mell-heads, because WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE OVER?! ;O;

Friday, September 17, 2010

Burton and Swinburn in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder

This is another one of those books, like The Vesuvius Club and The End of Mr Y before it, that I chose because the cover art is beautiful. I refuse to allow you to judge me on my superficial methods, because they are both very good books. Ugly books are good too, but I’m just saying one doesn’t preclude the other. Anyway, it’s very steam-punky looking and may be the most steam-punky thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s also green and has gold-shiny bits. It had a lot going for it before I even picked it up, is what I’m saying. And then I read the blurb:

It is 1861 and Albertian Britain is in the grip of conflicting forces.

Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose restrictive and unjust laws and flood the country with propaganda demanding a society based on beauty and creativity; while The Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, sexuality, drugs and anarchy. 

Returning from his failed expedition to find the source of the Nile, explorer, linguist, scholar and swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself sucked into the perilous depths of his moral and ethical vacum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, employs him as “King’s Spy.” His first mission: to investigate the sexual assualts committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack; to find out why chimney sweeps are being kidnapped by half-man, half-dog creatures; and to discover the whereabouts of his badly injured former friend, John Hanning Speke

So much blurb! I like that. If it can say all of that without giving a great deal away then the book itself has to be dense enough for me to fall in, get lost and forget where I came from. That's something I can get on board with. What I found, generally, is that my first assumption is correct and that I really fucking love this book. For those of you suffering from Teal Deer Syndrome, you can stop there. If you care why I love it, please let’s continue.

Firstly there’s the Libertine Propaganda and other sorts of cultural ephemera like it that begin every chapter. The one in the very first chapter is:

Everything Life Places in Your Path is an Opportunity
No Matter How Difficult
No Matter How Upsetting
No Matter How Impenetrable
No Matter How You Judge It
An Opportunity

Which is a wonderful idea in itself, but when you are trapped on THE JOURNEY FROM HELL that lasts FOREVER and in which you get stuck in Paris for 7 hours (not as glamorous as it sounds, it was an airport and they don’t do fast food) and then in a hotel in Detroit overnight (even less glamorous than you could possibly imagine) and then on a bus for 23 hours, it’s an even more wonderful idea. And it was right, in its way. I got to read this beauty twice, pick up some awesome anecdotes and think too much about the opening chapters of books. It helped! Perhaps the trauma of the journey has made me forget that there are things I don’t like and focus on how wonderfully this world was built.

After that WONDEROUS bit of fake-propaganda, Sir Richard Francis Burton’s former best friend kills himself, which is the catalyst for the events in the rest of the book. While investigating the many mysteries that present themselves to him, Burton has run ins with the violent, deranged and anachronistic Spring Heeled Jack. This is explained and made clear(ish) in the last third of the book (time loops and I do not get on). The result being that I regret that the events described did not take place because I want to meet an orangutan with a human brain who is called Mr. Belljar. I never will, of course, and life goes on but some of the invention in this book is surreal, spectacular and a lot of it is very funny.

The things I did like are many and varied, mostly I like the bizarre inventions that make their way into every day life when ideas years before their time are introduced into Victorian/Albertian society. The result being that greyhounds and foul-mouthed parrots take messages to and from houses, the Prime Minister has had more work done than Jackie Stallone and there are giant swans that swoop through the streets of London with passengers in kites on their back. It is so incredibly steampunk that it makes my eyes sad that they can’t see these things for real. Sir Richard Francis Burton is a likeable protagonist but I find myself liking the people who help him along his journey a lot more than I like him. He’s a bit impersonal, but funny and flash and all of the important things you want from a dashing steampunk hero. His sidekick Swinburn is also wonderful and provides the comic relief along with knocking Burton down a peg or two when he wants things done his way, for good or bad. I was also put onto Swinburn's beautiful poems. I'd never heard of him before this.

The things I didn’t like were mostly a general repeat of my occasional mantra “Victorian London omgWHY”, but that tapered off after a while because that’s precisely what this isn’t. It’s Victorian London on its head. It's the introduction of chaos, of flux, of absolute uncertainty about whether the things you know should happen, the things that no good Victorian London should be without, will happen. I like that a lot.

The thing I really didn't like was that a nurse who Burton encounters quite early in the story, Sister Sadhvi Raghavendra, is still presented as the bit of fluff, despite being a bad ass and saving lives, risking her own and all of that. She is of course immediately described the way Flashman would immediately categorise her: “dusky” with “almond eyes” and positively swoons when Burton says he’ll meet her again soon (he is still engaged at this point JUST SO YOU KNOW). Don't get me wrong, I like that for the most part, people from the colonies aren’t treated as they truly were in this book. I mean if you’re going to write a do-over get rid of the parts that remind us how shit humans can be to one another, but there’s still an element of “ooh, exotic!” that rubs me the wrong way when she is so much more than just a pretty nurse. If you're going to have people not be racist, lets not be sexist have men force their wives to leave the room when bad language is imminent. Just sayin. Back to the bad-assness of Sadhvi- without being too spoilery, she’s the bait at one point:

“She sat and waited, the tea at her side, a pistol in her hand.”

Know what that reminds me of? It reminds me of Budd in Kill Bill, waiting for The Bride with a shotgun in his lap. Ok, in all probability he was chewin’ baccy, not drinking tea and was not dressed as a flower seller. All that aside, Sadhvi? As bad ass as this guy:

And probably much better groomed. My point being, she does not have to be eye candy or a love interest to be a compelling/awesome character. PLEASE FOR TO BE STOPPING THIS KIND OF THINKING. Thx : )

The point I made when I reviewed Drood about dancing dead men about in strings still stands to some extent. I think I glossed over it for a few reasons:

  •  It was something that was not a bus journey of temporal or environmental extremes.
  • Hodder has a whole section at the back where he says “They really said this, but not this.”
  • It is not trying for any kind of historic accuracy. See Orangutan above. Drood seemed very real, despite the crazy supernatural goings on, and that made it weirder I think.

There are dozens of "real" (meaning people who once existed) people in this book, some of them saying things they really said and sometimes going off completely because this book is crazy times. I think the sheer volume of them, and the fact that I know they didn’t really meet and that this is all complete fiction that could never possibly have occured makes it a lot less creepy that they’re dead and this book is talking about them doing things they never did. I’m still not completely ok with it, but I may have attached myself to this book in rather an unhealthy way so my opinion may be completely warped. It probably doesn’t matter anyway : )

I love the Libertines and the Rakes. In my head I have to place myself in with the Libertines, they aren’t sinister or evil and I have to love the philosphy. The Rakes really scare me, but they’re so damned cool.

The poacher was just about to turn and take to his heels when an uncomfortable feeling in his neck stopped him. He looked down and his stubbled chin bumped into a wet red blade which projected from his throat. He coughed blood onto it and watched as it slid back into his neck and out of sight.

“My apologies,” said a soft voice from behind.

The poacher died and slid to the loamy earth.

The man who’d killed him sheathed his swordstick. Like all his fellow rakes, he was well-dressed, carried a bagged birdcage in one hand and a rucksack on his back. 

Little by little, the Rakes had occupied the shadows under the trees around the field and now there were hundreds of them.

They’re bastards, but that’s one of my favourite images of the book, hundreds of evil posh guys under trees killing poachers and being suave about it.

There are two cover reviews, both by the same man. I'm going to quote the longer of the two, because it unsurprisingly covers more ground.

This is an exhilarating romp through a witty combination of 19th century English fact and fiction. Mark Hodder definitely knows his stuff and has given us steam opera at its finest. In his first novel he shows himself to be as clever and inventive a writer as those who enliven his pages...A great increasingly complex, plot, fine characters and invention that never flags. It gets better and better, offering clues to some of Victorian London's strangest mysteries. This is the best debut novel I have read in ages. -Michael Moorcock

Yeah... I don't think there's anything I disagree with. Apart from the use of the word "romp", Mr Moorcock and I seem to think along the same lines when it comes to this particular book. Uhm. Yeah.

One of my absolute favourite elements is the seeming insanity of the inventions but just how much sense they seem to make to the people that use them. Spring Heeled Jack’s utter incredulity of the weirdness that surrounds him alongwith Burton’s matter of fact sense of wonder is brilliant. I mean, seen from a similar perspective half the stuff we do is just as strange and unethical, and I think it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of invention. One of the main messages of the book is that just because you can it doesn’t mean you should. Talking orangutans being the obvious exception.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Devil in Amber by Mark Gatiss

I’ve read this part of the Lucifer Box story once before, but had forgotten much about it apart from the saddest and sexiest parts. The former are a new addition to the life of Mr. Box, having taken the reader on a mega-fun time across Italy in the first book, Box is now looking at life from the other side of the Great War, and life is not as easy as it was. The latter are par for the course, though not as plentiful as they were at the turn of the last century. Here is the blurb!

At last! LUCIFER BOX, His Majesty’s most daring- and dissolute - secret agent returns in a mystery set some twenty years after the scandalous events of the bestselling THE VESUVIUS CLUB.

This time he faces treachery within his own service and a facist messiah with a peculiarly Satanic design…

The timing is what makes this book more interesting in some ways than the first. Lucifer is older, and jealous and insecure. He is as much himself as ever he was, but he is no longer on top of all his games, which makes for a different experience. The main threat he faces is from younger agents, he is framed for a crime and forced to ‘take the drop’ for the charges without his governmental contacts to make it all go away as one has come to expect. He has to use his mind and charm rather than cushy job perks to get out of trouble. This element of the story along with the satanic/fascist group he’s supposed to be investigating entwine together with the usual mix of scandal, wit and debauchery to make this darker sequel as much fun as the first.

The challenging aspects are Lucifer’s bruised ego, which is difficult to take as somebody who fell in love with his rather more robust ego of the previous age. It’s more than a little heartbreaking to see him looked over and dismissed in any way, for surely it is not possible for eyes to be anywhere else when Lucifer Box is in the room. Sadly it is and they are, and it is sad :( The other is the people lost in the war. Lucifer was not fortunate enough to be in the scant minority who came through the first world war unchanged, and it shows, and that too is sad. Again, notice my fangirlface talking about him as if he’s real. I reiterate from my first review: Shut up. I hate you.

I once again echo my first review when I say, due to the thriller spyish nature of the story, giving very much away would just be an epic fail. So instead I’m going to offer some choice quotes that display Lucifer’s own very special way of talking about his favourite subject: himself.

Upon his bisexuality:

“And, if like me, he travelled on the number 38 bus as well as the 19 (you get my drift)…”

Upon his well-maintained physique:

“Of my lean and lithe body (it still was, I swear!)...”

Upon his curriculum vitae:

“…The celebrated Lucifer Box: artist, bon-viveur, sexual athlete and wanted felon.”

These are the ones I had the presence of mind to bookmark. This book is about 250 pages of shit like that. It’s a lot of fun, although you’re liable to be sanctioned if you read it  frequently on public transport. I was overcome with the giggles more than once.

I have the hardcover, so some of the quotes are recycled from The Vesuvius Club. There is only one that I hadn’t spoken to before, and I feel like I should make a decent go of talking to it, but it says something that I said in my last review. I’m torn, Internets. Do not think it a weak attempt :(

Lucifer Box is the most likable scoundrel since Flashman Jasper Fforde

See the dilemma? I spoke of Lucifer’s like-ability and his similarity to Flashman and the obvious inspiration Gatiss took from there when I reviewed Vesuvius Club. It’s still as true as ever it was, but it makes more sense for me to tell you to go and read that one again to conserve your eye batteries. In summary, I agree with you Jasper FuhForde.

My Mell-head score is fairly predictable, because I am such an obvious Box fan-girl. For this reason I am going to take points of for less-sexyness, as it’s the only thing I can think of. He only sleeps with…2 people? And made me think about a naked old woman with a beard. Bad times.
4.5 Mell Heads!

P.S Can I tell you how much I enjoy having the excuse to write "box" quite as many times as this? I enjoy it A LOT.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

I read this weeks and weeks ago, but I am now only half an internet bum and I have a job so it’s taken me this long to write a review. I also left the country and read 3 more books. This is me catching up. I will be checking facts and things that actually happened quite often, because honestly I have only a vague impression of this book left in my brain place. Happily the blurb is a regular part of my format and will also serve as a handy refresher. Convenience!


Captain Will Laurence, formerly of His Majesty’s Navy, has had only a few months to adjust to his new life as the captain of a fighting dragon, but now he can’t imagine a life outside the British Aerial Corps- nor a life without Temeraire.

Now the Chinese have demanded Temeraire’s immediate return, and the British Government cannot afford to refuse them, even if it costs them the most powerful weapon in their arsenal. Laurence and Temeraire must journey to China, knowing that once they arrive in the exotic east, they could be separated forever.

As with the first in the series, the details are highly believable and I assume (I wasn’t there) accurate. They are also there by the bucket load, as a great deal of the book is spent on a voyage from Britain to China, and most of what is written is the minutiae of life on a boat. Not that leaving it out would have been preferable, but it just means the journey seems to take up more pages than it does. And that is already too many in my eyes. My point being: It takes long. It’s like the bit in Wicked where she’s in that castle with those people (I read it once and never will again, check the vague detailery) and Harry Potter the Seventh where they’re camping and it JUST WON’T END! Not very much happens on the voyage either. I made this criticism of the first book where Laurence and Temeraire are stationed at the encampment. A lot of plot points appear and occur and are on that voyage, but it’s so very dull. You can almost hear yourself chanting “exposition, rising action, climax, falling action.” Lather, rinse repeat. Not that it’s as clunky as that by any means, but I found myself looking for things that may imply ACTION! just so I wouldn’t want to skip ahead. I have never cheated reading a book in my life, which should say something about how much the voyage was dragged out. I appreciate that it really would have taken a long time, and having the audience share Laurence’s feeling’s of anxiety and apprehension as they are drawn out across that span of time is an effective way of making them empathise with him. However, most of his questions and apprehensions are not addressed until they actually arrive in China, or certainly as the voyage draws to a close. The lengthyness of the journey in writing served no real purpose (that I recall!) other than to illustrate that it was a really long voyage, which I have just demonstrated there in a paragraph, which I’m sure seemed to drag on forever too. *Ahem*

What a boat with a dragon may look like

Laurence’s feelings of epic woe on the voyage are caused primarily by his fear of losing Temeraire and his powerlessness to really argue his point, as the Chinese have sent the Emperors brother to bring him back, and upsetting such a high ranking official would upset his superiors and he can’t do anything about it because of honour and patriotism, or something. I’m sure people really were and are restricted by such feelings of responsibility, and the reasons given by Hammond, the ambassador, really are good reasons for Britain not shooting the Emporer’s brother in the face. They are not good reasons for Laurence to be a good boy, really. Laurence’s extreme restraint in the face of obvious taunting was very frustrating to read. If he’d just gone all out and punched one of the Chinese entourage, even once, it would have been immensely satisfying for the reader and would have made his determination to protect Temeraire far more believable (although now that I think about it he may have lost his temper...). Even still, that kind of restraint in the face of separation from family (and Temeraire is precisely that) only goes so far, even if the restraint is directed at Chinese royalty. Temeraire’s threat to stomp on anybody that tries to separate them is far more believable.

The relationship is between Laurence and Temeraire, as in the first book, portrayed perfectly, and Laurence’s desire for Temeraire to be happy conflicts with his desire for him not to fall in love with Chinese culture and serves as a bittersweet vein to run through the more action filled parts of the book. The battles are really well done too, I can always do with more of those, in any scenario. I think a lot of what happens during the voyage is political and personal stuff, wikipedia calls them “machinations”, which makes me think of machine guns, which is wrong. They were important to the plot, as I said earlier, but they’re just a bit dry when they’re set on a boat where nothing else is happening, apart from stereotypically British reactions to foreign food.

I remember the part in China quite clearly, and I remember that I loved it. Laurence’s wonder and culture shock are brilliant lenses through which to view the fantasy-dragon-China that Novik created. They see how much more freedom dragon’s are allowed, and Laurence is forced to deal with that along with his grudging acceptance that Temeraire may wish to embrace some more of his native culture. This is also the parts of the book where the mysterious actions of the Chinese royal family are explained and where the matter is brought to a resolution. It’s exciting and sort of breathless. It was easily my favourite part of the book. There is also some of that endearing Laurence/Temeraire parent/child awkwardness that I enjoyed reading.

Since that’s all I can remember, and therefore all I feel qualified to comment on, I will now argue blindly with the cover reviews.

Plenty of intrigue, swordplay, exotic locations, plausible invention. In short a treat. The Daily Telegraph
I suppose so, yes.

These are beautifully written novels…fresh, original and fast-paced. Peter Jackson, Director of Lord of the Rings
I would disagree with fast-paced, for the reasons outlined extensively above, but he is right otherwise.

Throne of Jade is even better…laced with political intrigue and exciting adventures. The Times
I think I might have enjoyed this one more, though I can’t say exactly why. It is a mystery, but I did.

So, that is it! I think the beauteous nature of their time in China might just cancel out the monotony of the boat journey, so I give it 3 Mell-heads. It might have been more if I could actually remember anything at all.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

I bought this book a bit by accident. I was having a quick browse around to see if any authors I enjoyed had brought out anything new. Quite a few have, but Susanna Clarke has not. Fortunately for me, Clare Clark, author of The Great Stink which I really loved, had written this. I wasn’t very bothered about the story, since she made the life of a sewer planner quite so very interesting, but at the mention of an apothecary (eee!) I just had to get it. I saw another book by her too, on my way out. It’s no wonder I’m poor, really. THE BLURB!

Sixteen year old Eliza Tally arrives in London with a swollen belly and a mother’s scolding ringing in her ears. There is a man, she’s been assured, who will cleanse her body of her disgrace. Yet when twisted apothecary Grayson Black takes Eliza into his house, he has plans for his charge that have little to do with charity or purity. Instead of helping Eliza dispose of an unwanted child he involves her in a macabre experiment.

Alone and friendless in the shadow of the newly rising dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, Eliza must somehow escape Black’s monstrous clutches. But Black is not a man to be thwarted easily.

This story, like The Great Stink, is set in London, albeit about 150 years prior to Victoria’s reign. If it has to be in London, I suppose it makes a change that Victoria isn’t on the throne. The story does not begin in London, however. It begins up in my neck of the woods- Northumberland, with a sixteen year old girl having a wank. Then she gets pregnant. Time has changed little in these parts, let me tell you. The long and short of it is that she gets sent to an apothecary in London who has apparently promised to ‘sort her out’, so to speak. In a way very much opposite to the way she was sorted out by her gentleman friend. I love apothecaries, so I was just itching to get to this part. She thinks he’s to administer an abortion, but he actually plans to use her in a more experimental capacity. I won’t provide details, I’ve already shared a bit too much.

Much of the book’s intrigue comes from the fact that the apothecary (ee! It’s a fun word even just to type, don’t you think?) and his wife are fucking weirdos. The keep Liza and their other servant, who has Down’s Syndrome, in a state of  ignorance about their apothecary master. They are not permitted to look at him above the shoes. His wife is almost as strange about it as he is. The reason for this is made clear later, but the terror it stirs in Liza as she imagines the possible reasons for being unable to look at his face, is felt just as strongly by the reader. So begins the thriller element of the book. The focus of the story is upon the obsession people had at the time about how the pregnant mother affects the foetus in the womb. It also follows Liza’s pregnancy alongside her relationship with the Down’s Syndrome girl and her master and mistress.
It’s very dark. Apart from her complete abhorrence of the creature growing inside of her, Eliza's circumstances are just terrible. A lot of the story consists of devastating blow after devastating blow. Life was not good for an unmarried pregnant sixteen year old in seventeenth century London. Not good at all. The book is therefore, generally, pretty grim. Not only is she in this dreadful situation but as a woman, has no way to change it on her own. She could get married, but she’s poor and pregnant, who’d bother? Her mother is a midwife but is not allowed to charge for her services because she’s a woman, so leaving her corrupt masters for a different career is not an option either . The only reason I did not give in to crushing depression or swear off my love of apothecaries (nevar!) is because Liza’s hope and determination along with her wonder at the newly erected St Paul’s cathedral and her fierce protection of Mary, the Down’s Syndrome girl, give the book a purpose. It’s getting somewhere, through all the shitty circumstances, so you can get through it too.
There are also monkeys. Two of them ^__^ 

As far as the protagonist, I liked her. She has a distinct personality, which makes the observation of her circumstances far more believable. Her view of London is not one of a grand city, but a small part of a grand city which she never particularly understands. Her view of the world is also not polite. It’s vulgar and gritty and detailed. There are private, truly private, details about her daily life and her troubles and her sex life that are shocking but not put there to shock. It’s very real and very personal, which is what I liked about the whole story.
Some reviews!
Meets the eighteenth century on its own terms: knocks its wig off, twists its private parts and spits in its eye…will draw in fans of Sarah Waters - Hillary Mantel, Guardian
I’ve only ever read Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters but I think in terms of unrelenting detail, sometimes excruciatingly personal ones, they definitely have that in common as writers of historical fiction. So…I disagree with nothing. How uninteresting. NEXT REVIEW.

Chilling, powerful and immensely satisfying. A triumph. Sunday Telegraph 
The first two adjectives are definitely bang on. The ending was sort of strange for me, though. Everything is tied up but we don’t get Eliza’s feelings on most of it. There is one event that understandably dominates her thoughts but her feelings about other important events aren’t spoken of in any detail at all.

Utterly compelling…a wonderfully gruesome gothic tale Metro
I suppose I have a thing with gothic reading recently. I was indeed compelled to read about more gruesome gothic things. Huzzah, Metro. Let’s swear eternal friendship.

The Royal Society, apothecaries, potions, the South Sea Bubble, mountebanks, monkeys and mutants…there was no way I was ever going to put this down Daily Telegraph
That list is fairly comprehensive and I do remember being reluctant to get off at my stop on a few occasions. Bus reading is terrible that way.

A bodice-ripping, action-filled thriller New Statesman 

I’m not sure what this New Statesman chappy read, but he makes this sound very much like a novel it isn’t. I do not remember any ripped bodices or any particularly action-like sequences. It is a thriller, though. For a bit. I guess. I just disagree, okay? Not on the grounds of differing opinions, but because I think it somewhat asinine to agree with an opinion that is apparently on an entirely different subject.

So, this book was fascinating and beautifully detailed and had an apothecary (!), but I didn’t love it. I loved the characters and the protagonists story generally, but the book itself is excellent but really only okay. I have no idea what it is about it, but it didn’t grab me anywhere in particular. I was moved, but I didn’t cry, amused but didn’t laugh, read intense descriptions of sex and my heart didn’t so much as skip. I give it four mell-heads.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve tried to read this before, but then lost my copy, which made it harder. After a class on Frankenstein (which is also in my pile), and then more recently reading Drood, I was in the mood for some gothic horror but had precious little time to get my fix. At 65 pages this was more or less perfect for me. There are other stories in the volume that I’ll get to another time. Here is the blurb:

Published as a ‘shilling shocker’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark psychological fantasy gave birth to the idea of the split personality. The story of respectable Dr. Jekyll’s strange association with the ‘damnable young man’ Edward Hyde; the hunt through fogbound London for a killer’ and the final revelation of Hyde’s true identity is a chilling exploration of humanity’s basest capacity for evil.

The blurb goes on to talk about the other stories in the volume, but I didn’t read those, so let’s not care. Sorted.

It was strange to read a story that I felt I already knew. It’s in the group of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein that I feel I know before I’ve even glanced sideways at a copy. There’s certainly been adaptations and references right, left and centre for me to have picked up most of what the story is about. I was expecting something more visceral and explicit, but it’s actually more scientific and reasonable than I imagined. There’s a man next to me wheezing. That is visceral. The book is very reserved and Hyde is far less monstrous than any of the depictions I’ve seen (with the exception of the amazing BBC mini series Jekyll.) It’s understandable though, ‘a strong feeling of deformity though I couldn’t describe the point,’ is not a helpful description for an artist to work off of. Wheezing Man just cunningly tried to pour booze into an empty Lucozade bottle but failed and spilled it all over the floor. I might otherwise have been fooled, except whatever it is smells like death and looks nothing like Lucozade.

The science of the book is suitably vague. I was surprised when Scarlett Thomas actually described the tincture in The End of Mr Y.  I always like to think that if I somehow found out how to make Jekyll’s concoction then it’d work and my evil half would be allowed free reign. I hate the idea of making Mr. Y’s tincture and being disappointed. I like the idea of something that seems like it could be real without me having any way to disappoint myself, I suppose.

However, the reason Jekyll gives for his experiment’s success is sort of disappointing. If somebody was going to wreck themselves and their life like that, I’d like to think it was through a stroke of tragic genius rather than say, an accident. It makes it sad in a pathetic way rather than a satisfyingly tragic one. For a man to have his work discredited by peers for fanciful science is one thing, but for it to have been a success only by accident is so much harder to bear. The end is so heartbreaking on its own, but it’d have been bittersweet if he’d made and recorded a major scientific discovery. It’s a great ending, I love it, but I’d liked to have respected Jekyll more than I pitied him.

Confessional stories, Lolita springs to mind, have to leave you feeling fuzzy about the confessor. The last page of Lolita is sad and tragic but I hate Humbert a teeny bit less for all he’s done because of the way he leaves it. It’s heart breaking to see such a nice man as Jekyll have his story end with a pathetic fizzle. Maybe I get too attached, but those are my thoughts. It's also frustrating me that I can't seem to say more without epic spoilers.

As for it being a ‘shilling shocker’, there were glorious hints of this throughout. I’m nearly convinced that the only reason for the iconic names of Jekyll and Hyde is for the following line to be able to occur:

If he shall be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek.

I love it. Obviously the name is genius for more than that reason. It’s the hidden side of a well respected gent, he’s a murderer that evades capture, he moves in the shadows, he is small and indescribable…there are dozens of reasons for the name being an awesome one is what I’m saying, but that line is so gloriously blockbuster that it just screams ‘I COST A SHILLING YOU KNOW,” or something similar. It’s an awesome cliche of a line with about a shillings worth of intrigue (That’s 5p in new fangled language).

It’s hard to say if I liked it, because my expectations skewed my reading enormously and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I expected monsters and got something more subtle but just as eerie. Rather than a mad scientist I got an experimental doctor. It wasn’t a let down, just different to what the telly said. So, now I’m conflicted. I have many thoughts about the story, most of them positive. The telling threw me completely off. I suppose it’s unfair that I’ve seen so many other ways for the villain to be realised and the conflict to be resolved. The original could only seem deflated in comparison to the collective work of hundreds of minds.

There are no cover reviews. Possibly because it's really old and reviewing it seems pointless. Who knows.

HRM. I am going to give it three Mell-heads. The others are in two-minds (See what I did? Didja?)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan

This had caught my eye several times and I added it to my Christmas list before buying the other two in the trilogy a couple of weeks back on the recommendation of a guy who works at my book shop of choice. We've had pretty good conversations before about Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett so I trusted his assurance that "They're really good." I did enjoy it, but I have a few problems with it too. Maybe it's like Temeraire and I just need to read more in the series. We'll see. Anyway, the blurb!

Each year the magicians of Imardin gather to purge the city streets of vagrants, urchins and miscreants. Masters of the disciplines of magic, they know that no one can oppose them. But their protective shield is not as inpenertrable as they think.

For as the mob are herded from the city, a young street girl, furious at the authorities' treatment of her family and friends, hurls a stone at the shield, putting her her rage behind it. To the amazement of all who bear witness, the stone passes unhindered through the barrier and renders a magician unconscious.

It is an inconceivable act, and the guild's worst fear has been realised- an untrained magician is loose on the streets. She must be found, and quickly, before her controlled powers unleash forces that will destroy both her, and the city that is her home.

Sonea is the young girl who throws the stone and is the main character of the book. Apparently. I say this, because she seems to me (and this may change later so don't hold me to it omg) to be a very weak person. She bothered me. She ends up randomly meeting some friends she used to knock about with during the purge and gets caught up in trouble and then running for her life (or so she believes) from magicians. The book is also told in part from the perspective of the magicians, which are the parts I personally preferred. I did not like Sonea.

Stuff I didn't like (that wasn't Sonea) was as follows:

Random word replacement for perfectly common nouns. Tea and coffee get brand new other-worldy nicknames that made me go "she was what?! Oh, coffee." every time I saw them. I mean, I accept the argument that they speak a different language, to an extent, but then why not just write the whole book in it? Personally I'm convinced that we're in an alternate universe by the human beings able to alter reality with their minds. You have BAMF magicians doing magic. I am as escaperised as possible. I don't need random sprinklings of jarring words to convince me.

There's a place where I think that the characters are done a disservice by this random changing of words. Two quite major characters are named after animals with whom they share an aspect of their personality. I'm making the argument that if she'd just named them after the animals in English then the connection would be stronger in my head. Having to navigate around the word Spider or Rat when you're trying to describe the creature they're named for just seems like a lot of extra work for something that makes a lot less impact. I understand that you're creating a world, but you have people doing magic and cool map things at the start of the book (I always enjoy cool map things). I get that we're not in this reality. Just...stoppit!

A lot (a lot a lot a lot) of the book focuses on Sonea's flight from the magicians once she realises that they're after her. It would have been really effective and thriller-like if we had seen it merely from her perspective. However, we see what the magicians are doing and why, and since she is the protagonist and the book is called "The Magician's Guild" it's sort of already assumed that they will catch her. So, I am not gripped or tense or really even that interested by the really long sequence of hide-outs and attempts to control Sonea's magic without help. I'm just bored and frustrated and disliking Sonea more and more each second.

For all the book has a female protagonist, I couldn't help be knit my eyebrows at the portrayal of women in it, especially given that the author is a woman. Most female magicians are healers. Clearly women just have to fill the role of caretaker, even in alternate realities where people can do magic and have yellow eyes. I mean, let's let our imaginiations run riot, but let's not go crazy. Women having proclivities outside of the maternal? You must be joking. Sonea watches a young boy get healed (obviously by a woman omg) and gets all gooey about the magicians and the idea of helping others. Lady Venara (I believe I've spelled that correctly, she gets all of about five mentions and I don't have any quotes to hand) who is head of the healers is the only prominent female character outside of Sonea and has next to no dealings with the really major events of the book. There are no female warriors or alchemists mentioned at all, and those are the other two branches of magic. They can't wait to get their knickers wet over the idea of patching up scrapes and handing out lollipops apparently. Much too busy to kill anything or explode any mystical potions.

On top of the rigid enforcement of gender roles, there's the fact that Sonea makes barely any decisions alone. She has no backbone (which makes her a strange choice of protagonist in my eyes) and just kind of gets dragged between one person who knows what they're doing and the next. She's clever and level headed, just has no spine. Maybe I'm just spoiled by Buffy, but I expect SOMETHING from a central female character. Especially if she's the only one.

 I honestly try not to read very much into gender roles in books. Sometimes characters come out a certain way and they have a vagina or a penis and it's not terribly relevant, but for Sonea to be a meek little nibblet and her Aunt to be mostly absent and for all of the female magicians to be healers just really rubbed me up the wrong way. Evidently.

All of this being said, the book was a good read. I finished it in less than a week and do find myself wondering what happens next (and if it gets any better.) I'm willing to give it a chance because it was enjoyable, if not exactly done in the way that I'd like.

I give it three mell-heads:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Drood by Dan Simmons

I bought this book around the time I bought both this and this, but it's really long and I was a little intimidated. I wish I'd gotten to it sooner, cause it's dead good. (If you're short on time you can stop there, cause that's pretty much what I'm gunna say now, just with lots more words.)

The blurb!

In 1865 Charles Dickens, the world's most famous writer, narrowly escapes death in the Staplehurst Rail Disaster. He will never be the same again. A public hero for rescuing survivors, he slowly descends into madness as he hunts the individual he believes to be responsible for the carnage: a spectral figure known only as Drood.

His best friend, Wilkie Collins, is enlisted for the pursuit. Together they venture into Undertown, the shadowy, lawless web of crypts and catacombs beneath London. Here Drood is rumoured to hold sway over a legion of brainwashed followers. But as Wilkie spirals ever further into opium addiction and jealousy of the more successful novelist, he must face a terrifying possibility: is Charles Dickens really capable of murder?

When I begin a reasonably long book like this, the start has to be enough to get me interested. The premise for this book is that Wilkie Collins is having this confession printed 125 years after his death so that it won't cause a scandal. Contrary to his primary assumption, I have heard of him, but after reading this I want to read more of his stuff. It's strange, because I feel like I know him and evidently I do not, because it isn't actually a posthumous confession. It seems like one, which ought to say something about how well its written from the off. The biographical details are all really solid/believable. It's hardly surprising judging by the massive list of biographies listed by Simmons, but it's still impressive.

Apart from sounding like the real person, the start of the book is also very funny. I think it has to be to attach you to such a disturbing tale. I liked Wilkie immediately because of how he talks about his friendship with Charles Dickens and the obvious good-natured (for now) jealousy that he has of the impossible and brilliant author. I don't know if their friendship was really as close as the book suggests. I hope so, because it is incredibly sweet and endears both of them to the reader immediately. 

The book moves quite quickly to a description of the Staplehurst disaster, which is disturbing as hell. It isn't very graphic, but there are just enough well chosen and truly horrific details that even I, survivor of 6 Saw films, shuddered and put it away for a while. Not gory stuff, just the details you mightn't have considered when thinking about falling boxes of metal with people inside them.

As the book progresses there is extensive discussion of Wilkie's hallucinations, paranoid fantasies and opium consumption. The latter of which is such as to be nearly impressive. He mentions De Quincey and Co. quite often, which adds to the realness of his character as he identifies with their descriptions. The level of immersion in Wilkie's time and culture in this sort of detail is phenomenal, and I'm not sure I'll ever get over just how readily available opium was. I'm cautious about taking too many paracetamol in a day, and this man was drinking entire glasses of undiluted laudanum (the recommended dose was two to three drops in a glass of wine). It is crazy ish, you gaiz. It's widely discussed and becomes a main theme and is woven into the story in dozens of ways. His paranoid delusions are one of the creepiest elements of the book, rather than anything invented by Simmons. Just say no, kids!

Alongside the uncertainty of Wilkie's point of view as he becomes increasingly paranoid is the addition of mesmerism into the mix. Dickens in particular was fascinated by it and there is a debate between he and Collins throughout the novel as to whether or not it could make people commit acts of which they remain unaware. It's quite heavy handed, but really works to leave the reader uncertain as to who is doing what and whether it's because they have their own motives or are acting under the influence of a mesmeriserist (okay, so I can't remember what they were actually called). It's creepy.

Wilkie is a very charming and likable narrator. Simmons obviously felt the pressure of presuming to speak for another well-admired writer, as he often makes fun of himself via Wilkie's impressions of plot turns or outlandish situations. It's subtle, but it always got a giggle out of me, no matter how terrifying the situations were. Things like "it was a venture worthy of a second rate sensationalist novel...*nudgenudgewink* eh, reader?! EH?!" I also like the complexity of his relationship with Dickens and his work. It makes him seem very human somehow. He even remains likable long after he stops acting like a rational person due to his addiction. He treats the people in his life terribly and does some seriously dreadful things, and his motives are never entirely clear because he talks about them as if they're the most natural thing in the world to have done. Every now and then, his disdain for his servants made me growl a bit and raised the hackles on my neck, but that's a Victorian Gentleman for you. Snobbery and dependence on opium, I am increasingly coming to realise, were the true markers of a gent. I did like Wilkie though, and wanted to hug and protect him from all the bad.

Lookit his face ^___^
But yeah anyway, I like Wilkie for some reason despite him acting like a complete bastard at times.

I'm not sure I've talked enough about just how much I loved this book. It was disturbing and creepy and thrilling and wonderful in too many ways to count. It did combine two of my worst fears (which I will not describe for fear of spoilers) in one scene which I'll admit had me turning on lights unnecessarily for a few days, but I think it's about as close to perfect as it could be. I am amazed by this amazing amazement which amazed me. Less-than-three and all that.

For all my loves, I do find it easier not to think of them as people who were once alive. Wilkie and Dickens, that is. I'm not sure how thrilled I'd be with somebody writing some of this stuff about me, no matter how long I'd been dead. A lot of it is based in fact (Wilkie's hallucinations and opium addiction, for example), but a lot of it plainly isn't and it's just a little bit odd. Dancing dead men about on strings was entertaining for me, but it's just a bit...eerie.

The cover reviews!

A dazzling journey through a crooked gaslit labyrinth- Guillermo del Toro

I remember Wilkie preferring gas lights and candles and disliking this new fangled electricity that was popping up everywhere else, but maybe that's just my broken brain. The jist of what he's saying is right though. I was the dim gas light? It's not a great metaphor but English is my first language, so I feel bad picking. MOVING ON.

A rich and strange book...the pages fly by. Daily Telegraph

Rich and strange are excellent words, and are used well in this context. Well done you, Daily Telegraph : D

Drood is a masterwork of narrative suspense Stephen King

I tend to agree with Stephen King's opinion of books, so I'm gunna mentally high five him once again and say "Go StepHen!" I didn't really feel suspense so much as dread at what might happen next, but it's a similar effect I think.

A manic energy that compels shock and awe Independent

I am definitely awed. It's incredible. I can't imagine a more wonderful telling of the same story. It's so dense and richly detailed.

Erudite, ambitious and huge fun. SFX

Opium addiction, train crashes and mysterious deaths are pretty good times. "Huge fun" is a well used description.

There are lots more inside, but there are lots more inside.

In summary, it made me fall in love with men who've been dead more than a hundred years, freaked me out consistently and just plain scared me more than once.

Five mell-heads!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Temeraire Series: Book One: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I devoured this book in a little less than two weeks. It's easy to read, as with most of the stuff I'm eating with my eyes right now. Everything that isn't academic, that is. Stress has seriously flattened my brain to base levels of intellectual consumption. I read this quickly enough, and the idea of writing something without having to reference constantly is far too tempting.

The blurb!

Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors right to Britain's defense by taking to the skies...not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.
When HMS
Reliant captures a French frigate and siezes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain furture--and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarefied world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France's own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte's boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Eww, over use of cliches in metaphor. That last sentence is like reading a tabloid. ANYWAY, that's pretty much what's going on.

The first bit on the boat is really good technically. Obviously the author knows boats inside out. I probably could have done without most of the technical jargon, but maybe it's just me. Novik would obviously have had to know protocol really well in order to write Laurence's reaction to being attached to a dragon and having usual protocol disrupted. His relationships with his shipmates are also really well written, more so when the formalities of rank are disrupted and they're able to be more human with one another, which I think is a subtle way of not making us dislike Laurence on account of his rank. He follows rules of formality and rank rather than actually thinking he deserves to be treated any differently because of some inherent difference. At least that's how I read it. Quite often you see rank portrayed as hand-in-hand with snobbery. Laurence isn't a snob. It's difficult not to dislike him when he first meet's Temeraire though, he's a bit of a brat. It's understandable though, since joining the Aerial Corps means pretty much leaving society and living with your regiment and dragon the whole time.

 Things I really liked about this book:

Temeraire might be the sweetest thing ever. He's intelligent and inquisitive and an excellent way of writing about the conventions of the time while being able to question them from a more objective point of view. He's also a motherfucking dragon. There are some very sweet and funny moments between Laurence and Temeraire. It's an odd parental/best-friendy sort of relationship. I daren't rule34 them, because I know there's something somewhere and I'd like to maintain their innocence.

The seperation of the aviators from contemporary society means that Novik is able to use female characters and have them not need to be proper or meet any expectations except those placed upon other aviators who are male. Captain Harcourt is a young captain who was a little distant from Laurence and seemed a little timid and a little naive, but Captain Roland is a badass older captain whose daughter is part of Laurence's crew, and she is awesome. Strong female characters in a military setting is nice to see, especially in period novels

Things that made me less happy:

I couldn't help but compare to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke, which is a book I love and still contend played no small part in me failing AS Level history. Not because I started writing about Regency Magicians (although I may as well have done), but because I'd get half way down Grey Street and think "Fuck revision, let's catch up with the awesome magic stuff!" JS&MN was also generally far more fantastical and detailed and the language was far more of the time (omg the werdz). Novik had the manners and the conversational hedges all down pat, but the tone and style were far more accessible to modern audiences. That's no bad thing, but I'm a language nerd and couldn't help making the comparison.

The story seemed a little flat. They seem to be at the covert for quite long periods of time and I don't feel like a lot is happening. The technicalities of Temeraire's training were really well constructed, and watching their relationship develop over time is really beautifully done and makes for a big case of the warm fuzzies but it's about little personal instances and about how Laurence integrates himself to the community, which is important and worthwhile, but I guess not actiony enough for my tastes. As a set up for a series it's definitely solid, though.

There's a section at the back with illustrations of the dragon types Temeraire and Laurence meet and work with, and then there are a few chapters at the back from a dragon expert's book. This is the kind of thing that made me love Clarke's book. Anything that makes a world more real always impresses me a great deal,  so I'm hoping there's more to come in the next two installments.

Cover reviews! There haven't been many of these the last few goes:

"Terrifically entertaining"-Stephen King

Yes! There was nothing wrong with it. Despite my complaining that they're at the covert foreverz omg, the pacing is actually really good. There's just enough going on to not make me want to scoop my eyes out like I did when reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire.

"Enthralling reading--like Jane Austen playing Dungeons & Dragons with Eragorn's Christopher Paolini." --Time

I disagree with the comparisons, they seem kind of arbitrary and "oh, these people are to do with dragons and women and historical literature, lets shove them together!", but it is enthralling and I did really love it.

There are no more reviews on the cover, lots more inside though. One of which suggests a film adaptation (ugh), but all of which say positive things.

I give it 4 Mell-Heads. The other was shot off by the French.