The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

All The Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

Descriptions of the sky….

‘The night was almost warm. He and Rawlins lay in the road where they could feel the heat coming off the blacktop against their backs and they watched stars falling down the long black slope of the firmament.’

‘He lay on his back in his blankets and looked out where the quartermoon lay cocked over the heel of the mountains. In that false blue dawn the Pleiades seemed to be rising up into the darkness above the world and dragging all the stars away, the great diamond of Orion and Cepella and the signature of Cassiopeia all rising up through the phosphorous dark like a sea net.’

‘Shrouded in the black thunderheads the distant lightning glowed mutely like welding seen through the foundry smoke. As if repairs were under way at some flawed place in the iron dark of the world.’

‘They sat very quietly. The dead moon hung in the west and the long flat shapes of the nightclouds passed before it like a phantom fleet.’

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July 27, 2009 Posted by | Notes in the Margin | Leave a comment

Theodora Goss

Another one to look out for, interview from 2006.

July 23, 2009 Posted by | Interviews | | Leave a comment

The Alchemy of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia

I have high hopes for this, Sedia’s second novel.  Her first ‘The Secret History of Moscow’, drew comparison with Neverwhere, which is just about my least favourite of Neil Gaiman’s works but I won’t let that get in the way of a promising namecheck.

July 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Julian Barnes

A brilliant book, it works on any number of levels.  I liked the repeating motif of individuals cast adrift on large bodies of water (usually oceans), and the use of this as a metaphor for life: ‘We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.’ Our own flailings in stormy seas, overlap and interact with everyone else’s in massively-multiplayer random sequences which, with the benefit of subjective hindsight, coalesce into something that looks like history.

Whole blogs could be devoted to the book but it’s outside the scope of this one.  So I’ll limit myself to quoting from a passage which really struck a chord….

‘She remembered a terrible thing she’d once read in a newspaper story about life on board a supertanker.  Nowadays the ships had got bigger and bigger, while the crew had got smaller and smaller, and everything was done by technology.  They just programmed a computer in the Gulf or wherever, and the ship practically sailed itself all the way to London or Sydney.  It was much nicer for the owners, who saved lots of money, and much nicer for the crew, who only had to worry about the boredom.  Most of the time, they sat around drinking beer like Greg, as far as she could make out.  Drinking beer and watching videos.

There was one thing she couldn’t ever forget from the article.  It said that in the old days there was always someone up in the crow’s nest, or on the bridge, watching for trouble.  But nowadays the ships don’t have a lookout any more, or at least the lookout was just a man staring from time to time at a screen with lots of blips on it.  In the old days if you were lost at sea in a raft or dinghy or something, and a boat came along, there was a pretty good chance of being rescued.  You waved and shouted and fired off any rockets you had; you ran your shirt up to the top of the mast; and there were always people keeping an eye out for you.  Nowadays you can drift in the ocean for weeks, and a supertanker finally comes along, and it goes right past.  The radar won’t pick you up because you’re too small, and it’s pure luck if anybody happens to be hanging over the rail being sick.  There had been lots of cases where castaways who would have been rescued in the old days simply weren’t picked up; and even some incidents of people being run down by the ships they thought were coming to rescue them.  She tried to imagine how awful it would be, the terrible wait, and then the feeling as the ship goes past and there’s nothing you can do, all your shouts drowned by the engines.  That’s what’s wrong with the world, she thought.  We’ve given up having lookouts.  We don’t think about saving other people, we just sail on by relying on our machines.  Everybody’s below deck, having a beer with Greg.’

July 20, 2009 Posted by | Notes in the Margin | Leave a comment

Scales – Written and Narrated by Alistair Reynolds

I enjoyed this Military Sci-Fi short.

I can’t claim to be an expert in higher mathematics / astrophysics but assume the events depicted are theoretically possible.  Reynolds is good at using recent scientific understanding (quantum mechanics or string theory say), without losing the uninitiated reader (ie. me) or the requirement for a decent story, up his own wormhole.

July 15, 2009 Posted by | Audiobooks | , | Leave a comment

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin

clashkingsIt’s become a bit of a cliche to compare any tactical battle of wits to a chess-match, but a sword-fight or a football match (say), bear only a passing resemblance to the grand old lord of abstract board-games.  A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin though, really does play out like a Game of Chess (or Thrones if you prefer), at least for the first five hundred pages.   The pieces are all present and correct: knights, castles, bishops, kings and queens, as well as a healthy serving of helpless pawns.  More than this though, there is a real sense of opponents jockeying for strategic position, with each thrust capturing land in one direction, while exposing vulnerabilities in the flanks and at the rear.

Book two in the Song of Ice and Fire series, follows the continuing exploits of the extended family of House Stark, as they become increasingly dispersed, carried to the farthest edges of the kingdom, in the wake of the death of the old King.  The power vacuum created has given rise to a competition for the throne, with four ‘kings’ laying claim to all or part of the land, mustering support and fighting for dominance.  Other lords, with no claim to the throne, are nevertheless interested in using the chaos to their advantage, in expanding their lands at the expense of their weakened neighbours.  As in A Game of Thrones, Martin remains in control by telling the story from a limited number of view-points, primarily those of the House Stark family, who find themselves swept up in local events and isolated from each other.  This mechanism is used to good effect, in avoiding the need for explicit exposition – we find out what’s happening as the characters do – and in keeping the reader engaged; the desire to know how the latest events in one location have been received elsewhere, reliably brings out that ‘just one more chapter’ urge.

The author is also careful not to tell us too much.  Protaganists are set off on courses of action and then left for several chapters.  By the time we return, events have moved on; sometimes we’ve heard how things have turned out via another character, sometimes we’ve been mis-informed.  Some characters, who we never hear from directly, disappear off the radar entirely, becoming figures of rumour and myth, until they arrive unexpectedly in the middle of the narrative, carrying the day for one side or the other.  The overall effect is to keep the reader just in-the-know enough to speculate about how things might turn out, while simulating the sense of fear and anxiety felt by individuals, caught up in big events without the aid of modern communication techniques, to keep them in the know.

It’s gripping stuff for the most part, though perhaps a few chapters too long in the chess-match phase.  The interdependencies between lords and their land are so intricate in this super-detailed world, that on occasion, the narrative thread gets bogged-down in political manoeuvring, play and counter-play.  All is forgiven in the final segment though, the pace picks up dramatically as opponents show their hands (to mix gaming metaphors) and the laborious build-up pays off in a shattering climax.  By the end the pieces are scattered even further across the board and in some cases over the edge.  I want to know what comes next so I’ll be checking out book three, which has to be the acid test for this type of series.

There’s no doubt that Martin is good at what he does: creating a complex world, populating it with nuanced, believable characters and using his narrative skills to weave a tale which keeps the reader hooked.  The time invested in the lead protagonists allows for convincing character development, and not just in the children who are growing up too soon.  Even high lords, forced to go against the grain in their bid for power or respect, find themselves deeply compromised and haunted by the memory of their actions, becoming positively Shakespearean in their response to the ensuing guilt and fear.  Tyrion Lannister (mentioned in my review of A Game of Thrones ) continues to shine as an anti-villain, as his love for a monogamous prostitute interferes with his political schemes.  Theon Greyjoy, a former ward of Eddard Stark, returns to his true family and finds himself on the wrong side of the game, taking ill-considered risks in his efforts to prove himself to his family.  The internal conflict he experiences as the consequences of his actions drag him deeper and deeper into trouble is absorbing, and ultimately tragic.  These are people we believe in, even as we’re apalled by their actions.

Martin’s prose flows well enough.  He is particularly strong on dialogue, which fulfills the requirement for earthy vernacular, without lapsing into fantasy cliche; an ever-present risk.  Descriptions are merely functional however, with much attention paid to the colour of a person’s banner or the menu for the post-battle feast but little attempt to convey a sense of the historic, geographic or natural features of each location, beyond that required by the plot.  No doubt the narrative would suffer in a book which is already 700 pages long but for me it’s the small details and sense of unique locales, which give real depth to a world, elevating it from a generic stage for actors to a living, breathing organism in its own right.  Ultimately, I would prefer a judicious culling of the many minor characters, or at least a reduction in the amount of page-space accorded them, to make room for passages which flesh out the environment around the central characters, bringing the world to life.  This is something that Iain M Banks does very well, without losing the narrative drive or the feel of realistically populated places.

Thematically the focus is very much on family values and loyalty in a world where the balance of power is constantly shifting; allegiances can change quickly for those who find themselves on the wrong side of history.  Martin casts a forensic eye over the many ways individuals react to compromised circumstances and how these reactions in turn, affect their mental well-being.  This is achieved largely through narrative though, just by dint of having so many characters, in different circumstances. During a couple of passages, individuals attempt to make sense of the bigger picture through conversational justification of their own actions.  But there is little use of metaphor or structural devices to make wider points or reinforce themes, and no sense of the author’s own views other than that stuff happens and life is complicated.

Two books in and it’s clear that Martin is equal to the task of maintaining the level of complexity and believability from book one, as the seeds sewn develop and the scope of the story expands.  There are many balls in the air at this point and none have been dropped so far.  The time invested in the characters and setting has been amply repaid already and we know there’s so much more to come, corners of the map only barely explored.  This is superior large-scale genre fantasy, albeit still short on the actual fantasy element, which remains very much in check throughout this book, like the last; the giants and dragons will have to put in a proper appearance soon or even I will start to think it’s all a myth.  The focus of the Jub Jub Bird though, is Literary Fantasy and it falls short of that name in my book.  Martin’s an accomplished writer but by the standards of this site, he’s no grand-master.

July 10, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment

A Game of Thrones – By George R R Martin

game of thrones

This is the first book in the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series and is, perhaps inevitably, a slow-burner at first.  The scope is undeniably vast, if not quite epic, with a multitude of characters bringing real depth to Martin’s convincingly realised world.  Seeds of story lines are planted in this series opener, which won’t pay-off until much later, though this instalment doesn’t lack for narrative drive.  A Game of Thrones centres on the extended family of House Stark of Winterfell: Lord Eddard, his Lady Catelyn, their children, wards and courtiers.  Their ordered, family life is thrown into upheaval by Eddard’s appointment as the King’s Hand and subsequent relocation, with his daughters, to the royal court at King’s Landing.  Eddard accepts the honour reluctantly, knowing it will drag his family into the great game of power and politics; and so it proves, as his family are scattered throughout the land and events begin to spiral beyond his control.

Martin’s gift is in creating an endless supply of complex protagonists to populate his world, as the geographic (and demographic) range of the story develops.  Indeed, he makes work for himself here by his – much commented upon – tendency to kill characters off, often without provocation. With so many individuals, the reliable fantasy archetypes are out in force but there’s a whole range of greys and browns between the traditional black and white, sometimes all within the same character.  Perhaps the best example of this is Tyrion Lannister, a hunch-backed dwarf with mismatched eyes and a predilection for drinking and whoring, whose family are among the most loathsome of the series.  Yet Tyrion is one of the more sympathetic characters; only too aware of his own failings, and those of his family, with a profound understanding of the dark arts of power politics, yet often making the most equitable call, standing up for the weak and confounding the scheming strong.  In short, he acts like a good King, while singly failing to live up to the time-worn image of one.

Meanwhile darker forces amass at the edges of the map, here be dragons indeed, waiting patiently until their time comes (again), in future books.  There’s a lot going on here and Martin controls the strands by telling each chapter through the eyes of one of several key characters, who we return to every few chapters.  Through this mechanism we learn much about the details and characters specific to the current location but we only learn of events on a larger scale as the characters themselves do, sometimes long after the events themselves have taken place.  The reader feels drawn into the local action but is constantly aware that larger events are taking place elsewhere and we don’t know what they are yet.  It is a continual source of joy to return to a character and discover how events have moved on in their part of the world and to predict the ripple effects for everyone else.

Small complaints, I have a personal bias towards high fantasy, while this is more knights and kings; though the myth and magic quotient will no doubt increase in later instalments.  I also found the children’s characters and story arcs less nuanced and satisfying than the adults.  Perhaps that’s the way it should be?  It remains to be seen whether Martin can keep all the plates spinning as the story expands in later instalments.  A Game of Thrones is a fine start though, recommended.

July 7, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment

Dispelling a Few Myths (or Slaying a Few Old Dragons)

Sci-Fi and Fantasy is the domain of geeks and no-lifes right?  The type of people who wish they were Conan the Barbarian: wielding bloody great swords with their beef-cake bodies, while women and monsters drop at their feet; when in fact they’re really spotty, uncoordinated nerds with no social skills, an evident lack of shaving equipment and one too many iron maiden t-shirts?  Right?

Well, yes.  Right.  I’m sure there are some people who fit nicely into the stereotype.  But if we’re into stereotyping, then we should also record that Football fans are the type of people who wish they were David Beckham: wielding deadly right boots on the ends of their perfectly toned legs, while women and defenders drop at their feet; when really they’re overweight, uncoordinated beer-monsters with no conversational alternatives, an evident lack of non-club related clothing and one too many match-day programs.  And Radiohead fans are the type of people who want to be Thom Yorke: wielding rapier-like wit, detached irony and urban guerrilla tactics in the fight against faceless corporations, while spotty uncoordinated nerds drop at their feet; when really they’re well-adjusted 30-somethings with young families, a guardian subscription and no immediate plans to smash the system.  Ok so I got a bit carried away with that last one but you get the general idea.  Stereotypes exist but they are as one-dimensional as the loin-clothed characters in those pulp fantasy epics read by spotty, bearded sci-fi geeks (ooh – what a give away!). Anyway, you know what I’m saying.

And for another thing, Fantasy is a very broad term.  We’ve come to think of it as Dungeons and Dragons, or the publishing-company-bookselling-industrial-complex has encouraged us to think of it this way, so they can pigeon-hole and market it to spotty, bearded, sci-fi… ok, I’ve done that gag to death now.  But I prefer to include the whole gamut of speculative fiction, from generic men-in-tights cheese to booker-nominated magic realism classics, from epic space opera to myth-based historic fiction, under the banner of Fantasy.  I suppose Speculative Fiction is intended to cover all these bases but that term sounds a bit too much like an apology in advance to me.  Like we’re a touch sensitive about our interest in all things escapist and attempting a pre-emptive strike against those who may sneer from the side. Escapism is the operative word here, whether we wish we were Conan the Barbarian, David Beckham, or Thom Yorke.  Even if we don’t wish we were anyone else but simply enjoy exploring the endless possibilities of life in different worlds, with different rules, through other people’s imaginations.  The wide-scale success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, shows there’s mass-appeal out there for ‘magical’ escapism beyond the fan-boy ghetto.  Let’s just call it Fantasy, I say.  But let’s be aware of the lazy stereotypes and the dreadful pulp nonsense, which comes with the territory.  And let’s try and improve the image of that catch-all term, in our favour.  Let’s praise those writers who blur the lines between Fantasy and Literature in interesting and thought-provoking ways and let’s be critical of those writers who churn out cliched pot-boilers.  Perhaps we’ll play some small part in bringing about a wider acceptance of the term, in the popular imagination and ultimately mainstream publishing.   That’s the aim of this blog anyway: tough on generic fantasy cheese, tough on the causes of generic fantasy cheese.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Musings | 1 Comment