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 dazzled...by 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!