The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie

My expectations concerning The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel, were all of the dark and gritty variety.  I’d heard that Abercrombie has forged a reputation for fantasy fiction with a very sharp cutting edge, making few concessions to the sympathetic and merciful lobby or indeed any pressure group advocating the idea of emotional attachment to character.  I’d even heard the term nihilist thrown in Joe’s direction.  In cinematic terms I’d imagined some kind of cross between Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (well you would wouldn’t you?), only with fewer laughs.  I was therefore surprised to find myself reminded more than anyone of Terry Pratchett, during the opening chapters.

Pratchett of course, isn’t in the least bit dark and gritty, but he is very funny – think Hitch-Hikers for fantasy fans – and he knows how to weave engaging and gently satirical stories out of his warped fantasy materials. Best of all, he has a priceless ability to imbue characters with genuine humanity (or trollity, to use one of Pratchett’s favourite devices) engendering empathy with his protagonists / antagonists, no matter how unattractive, sordid and downright devious they may be.  In the introductory phase of The Blade Itself, Abercrombie ticks all these boxes: skewed fantasy archetypes with by-turns, world-weary, calculating or credulous outlooks on life; strong minority voices who make life difficult for the powers that be; and humorous vignettes establishing the protagonists and their place in the world.  Sand dan Glokta, an early favourite, is a once renowned swordsman, crippled by years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Gurkhul empire, latterly an Atuan inquisitor who’s greatest fears have reduced down to waking up with soiled sheets and climbing stairs.  His formative experiences with the Gurkhul – which included the forcible removal of half his teeth and other, more sensitive, parts of his body – have left their mark on him emotionally as well as physically, making him an ideal candidate to commit unspeakable acts of torture in the name of the King.  His scenes are accompanied by a withering internal monologue, equal parts resigned insight and calculated manoeuvering, he speaks with economy but he has some brilliant one-liners.  In short, he’s a character straight out of Discworld central casting.

This style is all very readable but distinctly cartoon-like, with plenty of opportunity for satire and running gags, but less room for understatement, subtle characterisation or darker themes. The general rule of Pratchett is that the laugh count reduces as each book progresses.  By way of compensation we get increased plot emphasis and clever development of the underlying theme (there is always one per book; it becomes a little wearying eventually, as Pratchett reaches ever harder for new subject matters – The Fifth Elephant being the nadir).  The laugh count in The Blade Itself follows the same pattern, all but petering out after the oft funny introductory chapters.  In its place we get…..well, there’s the thing.  Picture if you will, Wile E Coyote, running very hard off a cliff.  All that momentum and suddenly no terra-firma.  You can see his expression can’t you?  And the sign he’s holding up, which reads: That’s All Folks!

Part of the problem, I think, is that this book is almost entirely devoted to scene setting, for the rest of the First Law trilogy.  Nothing very much happens for long periods, characters move around, have the occasional fight and interact with each other to no great effect.  Like Logen Ninefingers, the battle-weary barbarian, the reader tags along with no idea where it’s all going.  Bayaz, the First Wizard, returning to court after a lengthy sabbatical, seems to know, but he’s not letting on.  There’s not even a climactic ending to speak of, merely a biggish fight, a revelation about one of the protagonists and the sudden arrival of directional narrative for book two.  Worse, the author’s hand is all too often in plain view, nudging characters into unlikely directions for spurious reasons or contriving excuses for a scrap.

The heart of any character-driven work, is in the interactions between the strong personalities and individual motivations of  the protagonists.  Some recent US TV shows, Madmen and in particular Deadwood, have excelled at this.  The multi-season format allows viewers to get to know the characters and their conflicting obsessions over an extended period. We know precisely what characters are thinking, regardless of what they actually say; often it is the things left unsaid, which are the most telling.  Crucially, the characters remain true to their identity throughout, and the narrative takes its lead from these interactions, however messy.  By contrast, Abercrombie’s leads, caricatures but individually well defined, interact at times in altogether unconvincing ways, becoming either far too passive and accommodating or overly aggressive, and generally erratic. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that their actions are governed more by the demands of the plot than rigorously applied internal consistency; that Abercrombie is joining the dots for the protagonists, from their dispersed starting positions to where he wants them to be by the end of the book.

There is also a jarring lack of evenness in tone, as the irreverent but generally sedate default-setting is punctuated throughout, with passages of extreme violence.  I have no problem with extreme violence in itself and to be fair, Abercrombie is at his strongest in the midst of bloody battles; his punchy but otherwise rather flat-pack prose, is best suited to describing action (it works well too, for the occasional witty rejoinder:’ “there are few ills a good cup of tea won’t help with.” “How about an axe in the head?” ” that’s one of them” admitted Bayaz.’).  And I have no problem with work which switches between these extremes, Quentin Tarantino style.  But where Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction for instance, are genuinely menacing – with that stomach-churning fear of explosive, life-threatening violence hanging over the principal characters at all times – The Blade Itself is no Sword of Damocles and there is no comparable tension whatever.  There is gore aplenty but it is reserved entirely for the cannon fodder class: lower even than the bit-part class, those individuals introduced solely for the purpose of being shredded to tiny pieces by more important characters with big swords.

Despite the problems, the usual debut novel disclaimers apply, and I must admit to being intrigued to know what comes next.  Overall I’m left with the feeling that promising characters and an engaging over-arching story, have been smothered by poor directing, an inconsistent script and over-reliance on special-effects.  Not so much Lord of the Brazils then, more like Star Wars – the prequels,  plot-device recidivists all.  The much-touted dark tone – which could perhaps have made up for some of my other reservations – while undoubtedly present at some level, in the coarse language and occasional violence, appears to have been all but written out of the final edit.  The central characters and the world they inhabit are far too forgiving, attempts at social commentary take the form of one-liners apropos of nothing in the rest of the text, and the romantic interludes are little more than adolescent mush: ‘she couldn’t kiss the way Ardee could, no one could.’  We are several Dulux colour charts away from nihilism here, and too uneven for sustained comparison with Pratchett.  All in,the Jub Jub Board of Book Certifications (JJBBC) is awarding The Blade Itself a PG rating (Progenital Guidance): children should be advised, this book contains some scenes which their parents may find disturbing.

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May 11, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment

In The Night Garden – Catherynne M Valente

Towards the end of the Sandman cycle (Neil Gaiman’s now legendary comic book opus), there’s a six episode story-arc called World’s End, which features an inn at the centre of a raging blizzard.  The inn is a place where travelers between dimensions can shelter from reality storms, whiling away the time until the storm abates, by carousing and telling tales, in the Chaucerian tradition.  The format allows Gaiman to tell multiple short stories, and stories within stories, and sometimes stories within stories within stories.  While many of the tales told feature entirely new characters and settings, Gaiman uses the structure to weave in a number of references to the Sandman pantheon of characters and themes.  It is also an opportunity to pause and reflect, before embarking on the final climactic chapters, with some explicit foreshadowing to whet the appetite.  As storytelling is the very essence of the Dreaming, and the calm-before-the-storm timing is so apposite, World’s End works beautifully.  When I read that Catherynne M Valente had taken a similar nested-stories approach In The Night Garden, I was both intrigued and skeptical: intrigued because Valente’s oeuvre, more than anyone else, reminds me of Gaiman’s; but skeptical because nested-stories by their nature, tend to shift the focus away from narrative drive and invested protagonists.  I wasn’t sure how well such a structure would work in a stand-alone piece.

The eponymous garden surrounds the King’s palace; this being a fairytale we’re not told which King, or which Kingdom but at times he’s referred to as the Caliph and it feels all very Arabian Nights. There was once an orphan, who was cast out from the palace due to the unsettling birthmarks ‘around her eyes…stained a deep indigo-black, like ink pooled in china pots.’  Deprived of the palace amenities but with nowhere else to go, she lives off her wits, and the generosity of the local fauna, in the grounds and gardens.  She is shunned by palace staff as she grows-up ‘while thirteen summers like fat orange roses sprang and withered’ until one day, a young prince (naturally) approaches her to hear her tale.  This involves reading aloud the stories which are reproduced in minute detail across her eyelids, a pursuit which takes several nights and this whole book to accomplish.

At first, the tales themselves are the draw.  All the usual fairy-folk are present and correct: witches, wolves, foxes, polar bears, stars, serpents, fire-birds, centaurs, grandmothers, satyrs, mermaids, griffins, wizards, princes, maidens and more kings than you could shake a scepter at.  As advertised, tales are nested down through several layers at a time, with each narrator meeting somebody new who, in turn, tells their own story.  With the narrative voice changing so frequently, it can be difficult to keep track of it all but helpfully each new episode is the subject of a separate chapter – or chain of chapters – with names like: the Witch’s Tale and the Grandmother’s Tale Continued.  Valente is an accomplished teller-of-tales and effortlessly adopts a range of voices, drawing the reader in to a series (or should that be parallel?) of engaging tales.  The language is at once lush and earthy, restoring that link with nature and the elements, so absent from the majority of our lives today.  ‘Now the prince stole into the night, the shadows wrapping around him like slippery river eels, and his footfalls were black and soundless in the pine needles.  He journeyed through the forest, stars flooding overhead as though they had burst through some gilded dam…The trees made a roof of many tiles over his head, a scented mosaic studded with blue clouds.’  The effect is to re-create the tradition of stories told to an audience, sitting round a fire or tucked up in bed, purporting to describe and recount actual events; which is of course how folk-tales evolved.

Valente also employs a multitude of fairytale tropes; some she plays straight, others are subverted, usually to restore the gender balance to well-worn tales: maidens climb towers to rescue princes, ships are sailed by female crews, with lady captains and papesses rule spiritual worlds.  True to the grim nature of folk-tales, there’s plenty of dark deeds In The Night Garden: patricide, revenge, incest, extinctions – Valente has said that she wrote by continually dreaming up new ways to scare her audience – but surprisingly there’s very little portrayal of physical conflict.  Almost all the monsters, when they are tracked down to their lair, have stories of their own to tell, which cast them in a more sympathetic light and lead to some form of peaceful resolution.  Where deaths do occur they are accepted with fatalism – ‘to place your hands in the death of a beloved son is the most noble way to perish’ – and described in a matter of fact way.  The theme and style invite comparison with the Children’s Book but where Byatt remains steadfastly in the real world, Valente crosses the border into Faery and never returns.  The result is a far more fantastical, if less grounded, reading experience.

At times the fantastic elements border on the surreal: dead bodies are inhabited by creatures spawned by, and eventually resembling, the moon; mighty galleons grow out of trees, which have themselves grown from planks of wood; and various characters’ skins are peeled off, to be inhabited by others.  Transformation and mutation become running themes: ‘metamorphosis is the most profound of acts…without it nothing grows, nothing evolves, nothing expands.’  This hybridization, the embrace of the different, and the dark, lurid imagery is reminiscent of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.  Many of these appropriated weird images, of course, have their roots in folk tales, which themselves have evolved and modified in their telling down the ages.  Valente appears to be going back to the source: New Old Weird anyone?

The stories and their Russian doll(s) structure are intriguing in themselves but inevitably, the individual fragments fit together as part of an over-arching tale. Al-A-Nur is the anointed city, a sparkling metropolis of dreams, with fountains of silver and glass and minarets of diamond and topaz,  ‘a carved box which holds the wisdom of the world…the paradise of the rich and wise’.  At the centre of the city, organized in concentric circles are twelve towers, each dedicated to a different religion, except for the central Tower of the Papess, which presides over the other faiths and ensures peace. One tower in particular, dedicated to Saint Sigrid, eventually becomes the focus of the principal story arc as we learn about Sigrid herself and the prophesy which foretells her return.  Al-A-Nur isn’t introduced until half way through the book, though earlier tales refer to it.  Once its presence is established the real arc begins but even then, sub-stories circle around the main thrust of the tale before eventually being drawn in towards the plug-hole of this book’s climax.

There are many thematic strands and my one reservation with this first half of the Orphan’s Tales duology, is that there are perhaps too many for the narrative to bear.  On top of those already mentioned, there’s a clear feminist strand: ‘Being a maiden, you see, is not quite the same as being alive.  It is more like being a statue.’  Plus ruminations on rules: ‘Where there is a witch and a prince there is a way.’; power: ‘Only princes believe in the greater good.  Kings know there is only the reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name.’; pluralism: ‘who can know what happened in the dim dawn of the world?  We do our best with how the world appears in our own eyes.’ and dysfunctional families: ‘it is rarely the places that birth us which see our true worth.’ amongst others.  The motif’s come thick and fast but with the main thrust of the narrative heading elsewhere, there’s a danger of them descending into aphorism, substituting for profundity.  I will withhold judgment on this point, until I’ve read the second installment – In The Cities of Coin and Spice – I hope that some of the more nascent thematic strands will be developed further.

In fact, while In The Night Garden is an engaging and intricate work of literature in its own right, Valente’s ultimate success in crafting a satisfying whole from these extremely promising raw materials, depends on how well the second volume pulls the strands together; something she’ll need to do if the comparisons with Gaiman are to stand up.  That said, this is a fantastic start: Valente has distilled the very essence of fairy-tales to fashion a modern and multi-faceted version of the Arabian Nights. The concentric structure leads to continual delights as the true story unfolds elliptically and while I hope there’s plenty more to come, the tales contained in this volume are more than enough to be going on with.  ‘I shall tell you another, even more strange and wonderful tomorrow, if you will return to the garden of the night.’ The orphan says to her prince.  I’ll certainly be going back, to that enchanted place where stories are told and imaginations can run wild, safe in the knowledge that nothing can harm us, no matter how frightened we may feel; at the end of every day.

Apart from anything else, I’m still waiting for Iggle Piggle to show up.

April 9, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | 2 Comments

Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

After a less than convincing introduction to the New Weird (Steph Swainston’s – The Year of Our War), it’s make-or-break time for this hard to define and famously, dead-as soon-as-it-was-named sub-genre.  I’ve been working my way through Jeff Vandermeer’s The New Weird, a compilation of short stories by influential and practicing authors (more on that in a future post).  In the foreword, Vandermeer cites Perdido Street Station as the genre’s defining text, the one in which Miéville creates ‘just the right balance between pulp writing, visionary, surreal images and literary influence to attract a wider audience’. As Vandermeer is also one of the leading exponents of weird fantasy, it’s going to be hard not to give up entirely, if I don’t get on with Perdido.

Early indications were good however.  My complaint about The Year of Our War was over the lack of rigour and consistency in its world building.  I know that Miéville places much emphasis on these traits, even if he nonetheless enjoyed Swainston’s debut; and from the tone of the prologue alone, it’s clear that the city of New Crobuzon – with Perdido Street Station at its thrombotic heart – is a far more fully realized and multi-dimensional place.  A stranger arrives by river boat and describes his sensations as the city grows around him, becoming a dark, sprawling, industrialized, super-polluted yet disturbingly fecund, urban mass; alive with a kind of decaying dynamism, as life clings on for survival in whatever niche it can find.  And some of the niches are bizarre to say the least.

Besides humans, New Crobuzon is populated with a menagerie of different species, including sentient insects – where the females have human bodies and distinctly non-human carapaces for heads; a kind of toad / human hybrid who live in mobile water tanks to prevent dehydration; some green and prickly (in all senses) walking cacti and a couple of races of birdmen, with contrasting degrees of intellect.  Then there are the Remades: humans with augmentations, in the form of animal parts as replacement limbs or similar mechanical appendages.  These bolt-ons are rarely helpful to the wielder, as they are usually bestowed as a form of punishment.  Like The Year of Our War, this isn’t your standard fantasy fare – not an elf in sight and only a couple of swords (and I have a theory about that – for another post). Then again, a bunch of new races living together in a city isn’t in itself especially new, or weird.  This is just the platform however, for further strangeness: inter-species sex, mind expanding drugs, caterpillars which feed off said drugs, research into latent crisis-energy, inter-dimensional spiders, ambassadors from Hell, dream-eating monsters, water elementals, parasitic worms who talk through their host, sentient machine minds with ghoulish avatars; the list goes on.  Miéville is super-inventive, ramping up the weirdness factor in compound ways.

Crucially, he is able to earth this strobe-light of ideas through a detailed and convincing representation of New Crobuzon itself; its regions, demographics and power-bases.  This is very much a study of the city from the bottom-up, using consistently well thought-out detail as the building blocks of a believable whole.  So for instance, an event taking place in the city’s red-light district, is preceded by a brief passage on the history of that part of town, how it developed and interacts with the neighborhoods surrounding it; or a chapter chronicling a police-state like intervention in a dockyard strike, imparts information about the underlying causes of the strike and the methods used by militia to police the streets.  In the wrong hands, such exposition could become turgid but Miéville gives us enough information to create the impression of a real place – local colour, historical detail and entrenched issues – without interrupting the flow of the narrative.  The detail also extends to the philosophical and physiological aspects of Miéville’s world; where for example: academic research into new-weird sciences, or intercourse between trans-dimensional monsters, or sentience-mimicking algorithms in the mind of mechanical constructs, though all wildly fantastic, are nevertheless worked through with sufficient rigor to sound plausible.

There’s lots of information to convey and Miéville allows himself a couple of hundred pages to set the scene.  Isaac Der Grimnebulin is an academic with loose connections to the University of New Crobuzon.  He and his girlfriend Lin – a khepri, one of those insect / human cross-breeds – are also prominent in the city’s bohemian arts scene; indeed it is only in this libertarian social circle that the two are able to acknowledge their relationship, for fear of ostracism elsewhere.  Isaac’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades academically, knowing just enough about everything to attract the attention of Yagharek, the aforementioned stranger, who turns out to be a birdman without wings – they were amputated as punishment for a choice-crime, his race’s cardinal sin – who now seeks desperately for a way to fly again.  Lin is an artist, whose work impresses Mr Motley, one of New Crobuzon’s most powerful organized-crime figures.  Both protagonists are drawn obsessively into their own commissions: Mr. Motley wishes to sit for Lin, while Isaac, in attempting to understand the mechanics of flight, acquires – amongst other winged beasts – the caterpillar of a very rare and potentially deadly moth.

This early section is relatively slow-paced but it is by far the most enjoyable, in my view.  There is much to learn about the city, its inhabitants, politics and philosophies and a tourist’s sense of discovery, as each new location or concept is introduced and our knowledge of the city blossoms; a very rough guide to New Crobuzon, if you will.  Miéville’s language is earthy and at times coarse, it is also rather baroque, loaded with compound descriptions and lurid images: ‘the knot of architectural tissue where the fibres of the city congealed…converging on the great variegated fortress of dark brick, and scrubbed concrete, and wood and steel and stone, the edifice that yawned hugely at the city’s vulgar heart, Perdido Street Station.’  Brilliantly evocative, though over-reaching at times, this style contributes to the feel of New Crobuzon as alien territory; new and weird.  There are some precedents however.  Miéville acknowledges his debt to Mervyn Peake and M John Harrison in the foreword and, while I’ve read little Harrison – an oversight I’ll be correcting soon – the Peake influence is clear, in the portmanteau names – Vermishank, Rudgutter, Grimnebulin all trace a direct ancestral line from Prunequallor, Sepulchrave and Steerpike – and the pervasive air of entropy.  Where Gormenghast is stagnant and decaying however, New Crobuzon is teeming with adapting, evolving, assimilating life.

Thematically, the emphasis on per-mutation underpins Miéville’s depiction of New Crobuzon and is referred to explicitly by Mr Motley – himself a monstrous composite of human and animal body parts, a personification of the city – in justifying his appearance to Lin:  ‘This is totality…this is not error, or absence, or mutancy: this is image and essence.’  City life, Miéville is saying, exists in a permanent state of transition ‘from the industrial to the residential to the opulent, to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the ancient to the colourful to the drab to the fecund to the barren.’ And the city’s inhabitants are themselves part of the kaleidoscope, different races intermingle and interbreed, creating new formations and further mutations; ‘the immigrants, the refugees, the outsiders who remake New Crobuzon every day.  This place with bastard culture.  This mongrel city.’  Miéville is known for his left-leaning political activism and while he refrains from hectoring, or overtly espousing his views, there’s a clear subtext.  Vandermeer talks about Miéville’s ‘surrender to the weird’, I’d say further that he is advocating, indeed celebrating, his surrender to the different, to the dynamic; to the cultural melting pots that are modern day cities and in particular London, Miéville’s home.

All this in the first 250 pages, barely a quarter of the book; I was frothing at the mouth with anticipation at what was still to come.  Then suddenly, the narrative shifts into break-neck gear; hairpin bends come thick and fast, life and limb(s) are all too frequently on the line and the body count rises.  Incredibly this pace, once set, doesn’t let up for the remainder of the book’s 600 pages!  It’s a white knuckle ride as Isaac and his rag-bag collection of allies go on the run, first from the city’s authorities, then from Mr. Motley’s crew and ultimately from the monsters Isaac has unwittingly unleashed on the city.  The sheer exuberance of the storytelling is compelling; a series of set-pieces and cliff-hangers keep the pages turning and the various fantasy / weird / horror elements established at the outset, blend into the relentless narrative to create a pulp fiction experience like no other.  The climax is well constructed and satisfying, though appropriately bleak and open-ended.   It’s a cracking read.

That said, it’s all very linear and there’s a marked reduction in both background exposition and thematic emphasis, as a consequence.   A game of two (unmatched) halves then, with much of the early promise – for Jub Jub readers – dissipating as the plot develops. Themes are hinted at but never followed through; several strong characters with parallel story-lines and clear interests in the outcome simply drop off the radar; the character of the city itself becomes far less pronounced; the absorbing political, philosophical and scientific speculation recedes; all are left trailing in the story’s demanding wake.  While an element of narrative drive is to be expected in a stand-alone novel, I’d have preferred 600 pages of scene-setting and development followed by 300 pages where we cut to the chase.

Perhaps because my expectations were so high, I’m being unduly harsh on what is undoubtedly still a unique and hugely enjoyable book; perhaps anything would struggle to follow my last read: The Children’s Book.  Whatever the cause, I’m left feeling a little disappointed.   I remain optimistic however, first that this is a clear step-up from The Year of Our War but also that Miéville’s later works set in Bas Lag will themselves improve upon this promising, if uneven start.  In describing the concept of torque – a weird form of radioactivity – Isaac says: ‘It’s an entirely pathological force.  We don’t know where it comes from, why it appears, where it goes.  All bets are off.  No rules apply.’ On this evidence he could be talking about Miéville’s writing.  He’s a phenomenon and I return from New Crobuzon, my mind broadened and my consciousness expanded; and though it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect, I’ll be returning there just as soon as my quarantine period expires.

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | 5 Comments

The Children’s Book – A S Byatt

The Booker shortlist for 2009 featured an unusually large quota of historical fiction.  While this caused consternation in some quarters, it was fine by me and I’ll be working my way through The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters), The Quickening Maze (Adam Foulds) and Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) in months to come.  It was The Children’s Book by A S Byatt though, which caught me eye; partly because I thoroughly enjoyed Byatt’s previous Booker winner – Possession – but mostly because the fairy tale / children’s lit angle piqued my interest, suggesting the possibility of overlap with more speculative works.  Could Byatt – one of our foremost living authors – have written a nominated book which falls right into the Jub Jub’s literary fantasy niche?

The beautiful cover art (see diagram) depicts an ornament – supposedly on display at the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1900 – ‘in the form of a turquoise woman’s bust rising out of the mouth of a long, long dragonfly, it’s narrowing gold body studded with shimmering blue and green jewels’. Intricate and delicate, it is appropriately representative of the Victorian artistic age, where every-day items were still painstakingly hand-produced, with the emphasis on decorative abundance and attention to detail.  Byatt, it seems, set out to write the Children’s Book with the same ethos: 600 plus pages of diligently researched, finely wrought prose, embossed with a wealth of period flourishes.

So this isn’t a light read and the commitment requirement is leveraged by the absence of any real plot or lead character to drive the narrative.  The Children’s Book is more of an ensemble piece, charting the lives of various extended families across a few decades, spanning the end of the nineteenth century.  The families in question are loosely related by political and social convictions – an assortment of fabians, socialists and anarchists – by libertarian lifestyles and a shared passion for artistic pursuits.  These pursuits take a number of forms: pottery, jewellery, antique collections, theatre (writing and performing) and literature.  Gatherings usually involve informal performances – of live actors or puppets – group creative sessions, topical lectures and philosophical discussions.

The pastoral setting – family homes are predominantly rambling country houses in the Kent downs and marshes – and inspiring pass-times, combine to create seemingly idyllic conditions for the up-bringing of the children, who together form the focus of the book: Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis and Hedda Wellwood, who’s mother Olive is a successful children’s writer and who’s father Humphry works in the Bank of England; their cousins Charles and Griselda Wellwood; Julian and Florence Cain, who’s father Prosper is the Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum; Gerraint, Imogen and Pomona Fludd, who’s father Benedict is an eminent, if rather eccentric, potter; and Phillip and Elsie Warren, who’ve left their native Staffordshire to work as apprentice and house-keeper for Benedict.

It turns out that life is far from perfect for these privileged youngsters.  Byatt has said that she wanted to explore the noted phenomenon of miserable childhoods for the real offspring of children’s authors; how the writer’s innate immaturity and devotion to work, can lead to damaged relationships with their own progeny, who won’t stay true to their parent’s generalised, projected image of a child.  A large early section of The Children’s Book, sub-titled The Golden Age, recounts the children’s early formative years, before the turn of the century.  Kenneth Graham’s book of that name is famous for its depiction of children at odds with adults, who have grown-up, assumed responsibilities and forgotten what it was like to be young.  Byatt’s golden age turns this idea on its head: the adults are portrayed as ‘grown-ups who don’t want to grow up’; while the children rebel against this, by taking on responsibilities and setting themselves goals, be they educational or work related.  From the start, it’s clear that the children in the Children’s Book aren’t simply those under the age of 16.

At the same time, children’s books – fairy stories, as read by the youngsters, written by Olive and performed by everyone – permeate the text.  Olive writes a private, never-ending tale for each of her children, which draw heavily on classic precedents: Andersen, the brothers Grimm, Shakespeare.  Some of these tales are reproduced in full in the text, an echo of Byatt’s approach in Possession, albeit less prolifically and without the narrative-driving significance.  Children’s literature of a more contemporary – to the period – nature, is also prevalent: Kenneth Graham, J M Barrie, Hope Mirrlees, Lewis Carroll (hurrah!) and E Nesbitt (on whom Olive is loosely based) all make an appearance of one form or another.  Less explicitly, fairy story themes and tropes abound in the protagonists themselves.  Theses will be written about the parallels between these characters and children’s archetypes.  No doubt I haven’t picked up on half of the allusions but I did spot a Peter Pan, two Cinderella’s (depending on whether you prefer the English or German version), a Dick Whittington, some Babes in the Wood and most of the characters from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (or at least a large pot of love potion).  There’s also a multitude of less specific fairytale refrains: changelings, suicides, wicked step-parents, run-aways.  The list goes on and the combined effect is to turn an already dense text into a super-rich blend of historical, social and literary themes; some referred to explicitly but many more buried in the subtext, for the inquisitive (and knowledgeable) reader to unearth.

To give just one example Tom Wellwood, Olive’s favourite and the subject of her lengthiest private work – Tom Underground, a story in which the protagonist loses his shadow and must descend into the underworld to recover it; itself a reflection on childhood lost – rejects his peers’ desire to get on in the world.  Tom’s early experiences of boarding school are far from pleasant and he soon drops out, setting the tone for the rest of his life as increasingly, he withdraws into himself and the natural world he loves; ‘there just – simply – to take all this in, and know it.’  Tom of course is the Peter Pan of the book but he becomes more like a Lost Boy as the book progresses, unwilling to engage with the adult world but unable to hold on to that nostalgic life as a carefree youngster.  His mother’s inability to see beyond her glorified image of Tom and the story she is writing for him, alienates him further. ‘She could not, and did not, imagine any of the inhabitants of this walled garden wanting to leave it, or change it, though her stories knew better.’

This phase of later childhood – adolescence loosely – is documented in the second section of the book, sub-titled The Silver Age.  While Tom’s story takes an exceptional turn, the underlying theme: youngsters growing up, following their own path and becoming ever more remote from their parents, recurs throughout the book.  Byatt makes the link explicit by reproducing in full, one of Olive’s short stories – The Shrubbery – in which an errant child – Pig – finds a whole world of little people in his back-garden and chooses to stay rather than return to his old life.  Pig promises to visit his mother from time-to-time but his mother knows that she has lost the child she once knew.  This is an inversion of conventional fairytale narrative, where for instance, Dorothy seeks desperately for a way back to Kansas. For me though, the inversion speaks a greater truth: that each new step a child takes in life, pulls them further away from their parents and their past, however much both parties attempt to resist.

I’ve focussed on the children’s angle but there are many more facets to The Children’s Book; from interpreting the golden age as referring to nostalgic yearnings for a simpler, more bucolic life, to recording the birth of many of the concepts and ideologies which dominate the world we live in today. Electricity is the great new wonder at the Paris exhibition; there is debate, between Humphry and his brother, about the success of the gold standard, the introduction of the silver standard and the workings of capital and high finance in an increasingly globalised world (gold and silver, another recurring motif); we also witness some of the earliest stirrings of the Labour and women’s suffrage movements.  Byatt recounts all this, as the narrative demands, in passing and from a period perspective, the reader is left to make the modern day associations.  Near the end of the book, many of these thematic strands are thrown into sharp relief, by the advent of the First World War.

Byatt has said that she didn’t write the Children’s Book with the war in mind, instead she created the characters and their lives and eventually, war arrived.  For the reader however, it’s clear that this is where the characters are heading – history dictates – and there is an increasing sense of events-overshadowed-by-impending-hostilities, as the novel progresses.  When the war does arrive, as the book reaches its conclusion, it is all the more shocking because we have spent so much time with these characters and come to know them so well.  Its impact is of course immediately sobering, to children and adult-children alike, obliterating any lingering attempts to keep the real-world at bay.  This section of the book – The Lead Age – in contrast to the rest, is told in short percussive bursts and in a very matter-of fact style, which brings to mind the way in which fairy stories are told: grandmothers are eaten, true mothers die, children are left to fend for themselves but no emotion is attached to the events as the tale is told.  To paraphrase Byatt herself from a recent interview: this happens, then this happens, then this.

This surely reflects the sense of numbness and emotional detachment that individuals must feel when confronted by such horrific and over-powering events; perhaps fairy tale language ultimately derives from a time when life was considerably more harsh, violent and short.  From a narrative perspective it makes for a fittingly climactic, if dreadful, denouement to a book about childhoods lost and adult attempts to hide from the real world. But a part of me felt that the subtle complexity of the book’s message was overpowered by the extreme events at the very end.  After all, lives lived in comparatively peaceable times still entail facing up to the consequences of birth, growth, loss and death; whether these come through extraordinarily violent means or otherwise.  Either way though, it’s profound and thought provoking stuff.

Has Byatt written a book for the Jub Jub’s niche?  Well, in the most obvious sense, no.  Literary and fairy-tale elements remain off-screen; either in books and imaginations, or on stage.  There’s no cross-over between the worlds – Alice In Wonderland style – no moments of magic realism or suspended disbelief.  That said, the Children’s Book exudes classical literature and story-telling from every pore; multilayered and multifaceted, there’s plenty to keep the thoughtful reader occupied, making links and spotting themes, well beyond the turn of the final page.  It is also a richly detailed, thoroughly researched and lovingly embroidered evocation of life in the decades leading up to the First World War.  It meanders at times and gives away few clues en-route, regarding its destination but by the end, I felt almost overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of ideas, in plain view and below the surface.  Undoubtedly a great work of literature – Wolf Hall has some way to go to justify its superior claim to the 2009 Booker prize – but also a work about literature of a speculative nature: myths and stories told for generations to keep the dark at bay, but still surprisingly relevant to lives lived a century ago and ultimately to our lives today.  If that’s not literary fantasy, I don’t know what is.

February 9, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | 1 Comment

The Time Traveler’s Wife – By Audrey Niffenegger

I stayed away from this book for a long time, despite hearing good things about it.  In part I was put off by the title, which sounded too much like The Kitchen God’s Wife (a book I haven’t read but which, in turn, reminded me of The God of Small Things (a book I have read but didn’t enjoy)).  Both titles sound interesting to readers of a speculative nature but come over as a tad portentous, when the subject matters turn out to be fairly mundane.  The time-travel subject was the other reason I was put-off;  done well, and as a strand of a larger story, there’s still a place for time-travel of course, despite the fact that it’s been done to death already.  I just had my doubts that it was possible to make it the central theme of a book, while offering anything new.  I was wrong on both counts.

Henry De Tamble suffers from a very rare genetic disease which causes his internal time clock to reset itself unpredictably, generally during moments of high stress.  So Henry jumps backwards and forwards in time, usually to times or events which have had or will have a profound effect on his life.  Henry doesn’t know where he’s going, or how long he’ll be gone and his clothes don’t time-travel with him so wherever he ends up, he has to live off his wits to avoid getting into scrapes with the police.  This small but significant change to the everyday world as we know it, allows Niffenegger to have serious fun, as she shuffles the order of events throughout Henry’s life.  So for instance, Clare – the time traveler’s wife – meets her future husband when she’s still a child and knows for certain that she will marry Henry because he has come from the future (where they are already married) and tells her.  Meanwhile Henry doesn’t meet the older version of Clare until he’s in his late twenties; up to that point he has no idea that Clare exists, even though Clare has known for many years that Henry is out there somewhere.  There are also occasions when Henry’s present-day self meets a time travelling Henry and the two exchange important information, or help themselves out with particular problems.  This happens most memorably, when present-day Henry time-travels from stress on his wedding day and a future Henry finds himself in the right place at the right time to stand in for himself at the altar, albeit looking slightly older and more bedraggled.

Once you start to play with time in this way, there’s a multitude of set-pieces and clever plot twists to employ.  Niffenegger writes in an episodic way, which allows her to exploit these ideas to the full.  Events aren’t told in chronological order, or indeed any order, they are simply related in such a way as to first introduce us to Henry and his life-style and later, once we’ve got the hang of the mechanics, to relate how this life plays out.  Helpfully, we are told at the start of each episode, the date and the ages of Henry(s) and Clare, avoiding the need for drawn-out exposition during the narrative.

The overall approach reminds me of that used by Charlie Kaufman in Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two brilliant films which play out in a world exactly the same as our own, with the exception of one critical change to everyday physical laws (a portal into John Malkovich’s mind and the ability to wipe sections of your memory to forget a nasty relationship, respectively).  No serious attempt is made to explain how this can really happen scientifically but that’s not the point, it’s more of a thought experiment about how life would be different in such a world; the subtly altered reality is a given and the logic is pursued to interesting conclusions.  In this case Niffenegger tells an alternative love story; one where the conventional narratives of boy-meets-girl are fractured, spliced and turned on their head by the time travel element (more like man-meets-little-girl-who-grows-up-to-meet-younger-version-of-man-again).

There’s no denying the originality of this approach and the focus on the love story – the way Clare’s life is entirely contingent upon Henry’s condition (affecting as it does her past, her present and her future) – is the key to its popular appeal. It’s not an easy ride by any means, Niffenegger takes an unflinching approach to the random and impassive nature of life, especially when you know what’s going to happen but can’t do anything to stop it, because it already has.  The novel has a dark edginess to it, from the way Henry hones his petty burglary and pick-pocketing skills to survive on his travels, to the time spent watching punk bands in local dives (Henry has an impeccable taste in late 70’s / early 80’s guitar music), to Clare’s numerous and soul-destroying failed attempts to have a baby.  It’s a compelling and at times heart-breaking story, convincingly told, with time travel as the underlying plot device.  Something for everyone then.

And yet, and yet…. I found myself admiring this book more than loving it.  I’m struggling to pin-point exactly why but I think it’s mostly because of the focus on the relationship between Henry and Clare.  The time travel element is present throughout and crucial to the plot but leaving that to one side, each episode becomes just another contemporary tale about love and life in the late 20th century.  The protagonists, hang out in bars, socialise with a clique of friends, have relationship problems, try for a baby (in an interminably drawn-out section of the book) and have complicated family histories.  In short, while the concept is interesting, most of the actual pages are filled with the dull day-to-day stuff about life; precicely what I read speculative fiction to escape from. If it weren’t for the consistently dark tone, I’d almost describe it as high-end chic-lit.  This isn’t Niffenegger’s fault, she’s conceived and written a love story with an interesting twist and it’s been very successful.  For me though, all the really interesting things about time travel are the extra-ordinary possibilities – journeys to a remote past or to a far flung dystopian future – and these bases have all been covered before.  So I’m left with an unfulfilled feeling and the knowledge that this book was only ever likely to be of passing interest to me.

I wish someone had told me that before I read it.  If I could time travel, I would go back and save myself the bother; only that wouldn’t work because by then I’d have read it already!  I hope this review saves others like me, from the same temporally-challenged fate.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment

The Alchemy of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia

The implications of advances in artificial intelligence have long been a source of inspiration for science fiction writers and film makers.  In recent times rock bands – Radiohead and Grandaddy to name two of my favourites – have been getting in on the act; Radiohead in particular have peddled a brand of alienated electronica which encapsulates a sense of humanity left behind or subjugated by machines.  This is an inversion of the usual Sci Fi approach, which is to look for the humanity in robots.  With the Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia has taken the more traditional approach but breathes new life into the trope, by giving her central character female attributes.

Mattie is a sentient automaton, built by Loharri – an esteemed Engineer – to resemble a woman, or at least an abstract view of one; Mattie’s casing is shaped like a dress and her replaceable face-mask has female features.  Superficially, these may seem like very small indicators of gender but to Mattie they are the basis for her identity and the jumping off point for a wider exploration of a range of related themes, more of which later.  At first Loharri built Mattie to act as his home-help but the sentient part of her mind pushed for ever greater sophistication and ultimately emancipation; pain and pleasure sensors were needed to help Mattie protect herself from everyday accidents, feeling and emotion circuits developed an increasing desire for self-determination.  At the start of the book, Mattie lives and works as a practicing Alchemist (arch rivals to the Engineers), having first been set free by Loharri to take on an apprenticeship and later having branched out on her own, (when her skills surpassed that of her tutor in true fantasy tradition).

Loharri though, has not been passive during the course of these events and it is clear that while Mattie may appear to have her own freedom, Loharri has a lingering hold over her; emotionally she feels she owes a debt to her creator but more crucially tangibly: Loharri still holds Mattie’s key, the one she needs to wind her up and give her life.  The relationship between these two protagonists – essentially that of a domineering and abusive father and his daughter – is at the heart of the novel, as Mattie seeks to find and define herself, in the confusing tangle of where she comes from and who she wants to be.  Being different from everyone else, she thinks these contradictions are unique to her robot nature but in doing so of course, she reveals herself to be just as human as everyone else.

Loharri’s abuse extends to the physical.  In an unsettlingly original passage, we learn how Mattie lost her virginity to Loharri, once she was able to experience pleasure. ‘The almost hungry caress of the fingertips as they traced the outline of the keyhole on her chest, and made her heart tick faster.  The taste of human skin on her lip sensors, salty and precipitous, and the feeling in her abdomen that some great misfortune was about to befall her mixed with light headed giddiness’.  The concept of automaton sex is disturbing-yet-fascinating, asking questions about pleasure, intimacy and the difference between genuine experience and vicarious sensation.  These formative events have become indelibly printed on Mattie’s being; as her resentment builds, so does her determination to break free from Loharri’s thrall, whatever the cost to her creator.

It doesn’t take searing insight to spot the feminist strand running throughout the piece but it would be wrong to consider the book purely from a gender perspective; identity, self discovery and what it means to be human in a mechanized world, are thematically just as prominent.  Sedia is skillful at layering her tale with these metaphoric strands without hectoring, the reader is left to make the connections, draw the analogies and come to their own conclusions. It’s during these passages that Sedia is at her strongest, taking genre writing into new territory, bringing a genuinely literary element to the steampunk tradition.

Indeed up to this point in the review, I’ve barely mentioned the fantastical aspects of the book; given the stated aim of this blog, that’s very promising.  Genre fans can rest assured that there is a secondary world here, with steampunk and fantasy elements.  All the action takes place in one large – part Victorian, part magical and part mechanized – city.  I particularly liked the gargoyles, who roam the city’s rooftops in packs and speak with one voice, in italicized segments distinct from the rest of the text.  The gargoyles are part of the very fabric of the city; they made the buildings out of the rock from which they too are made.  One by one they return to stone as they age, calcifying permanently on roof-tops when their time comes.  It is the gargoyles who set the narrative running at the start of the book, by entrusting Mattie with the task of stopping their eventual petrification, if she can.  Mattie’s investigations lead her to seek out the Soul-Smoker, a sad character feared throughout the city because he involuntarily sucks the souls from the bodies of all living creatures nearby.  Mattie the automaton is immune but her contact with the Soul Smoker leads to revelations which are just as life threatening, to Mattie and to the city itself.

The author’s prose is deceptively rich, given her economy of style; a style which contributes to the fantasy feel of the book.   Sedia originally hails from Russia and I suspect that her writing reflects a non-typical outlook, while some phrases feel like they’ve been lost in translation.  It would be pushing it too far to say that there’s a Russian feel to the book but there’s certainly something other-wordly – to this western reader – about the city and its inhabitants, beyond the mere descriptions of the things themselves.

The book is relatively short, some 300 pages of big type, and there are so many ideas inside, it doesn’t leave much room for serious world-building.  With the focus on the characters – what they say and don’t say – it seems harsh to complain about the lack of attention to detail in the wider world.  Even so, I wanted these strong characters and compelling themes to be grounded in a world which was much more fully realized.  The plot too is a little thin, or rather it starts off well but then resolves itself in a slightly clumsy rush, with interesting characters from the first half, referred to fleetingly or forgotten by the end.  Perhaps this is the trade-off where literary fantasy is concerned, plot and world-building vs. allusion and metaphor; though Iain M Banks proves that it’s possible to do both, well.  I found myself thinking around the book itself, pursuing themes and making links way beyond the requirements of the plot, which is the acid test for me.  Perhaps a little underdone in parts then but The Alchemy of Stone is proper literary fantasy and Ekaterina Sedia is definitely one to watch.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 2 Comments

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

graveyard-bookFirst off, congratulations to Mr. Gaiman for his (second, long-form) Hugo award for The Graveyard Book.  A quick look at my Hall of Fame will leave the reader in no doubt about my regard for Neil’s work but, if pressed, I’d have to concede that his output since the brilliance of the Sandman has been uneven at best.  I’ve read it all religiously of course and though each piece of work has something to remind us of Gaiman’s virtuosity, there’s always a flicker of disappointment that he hasn’t been able to repeat in prose, the god-like genius of his graphic novels.  American Gods is about as close as he’s come and that, of course, won his first Hugo.

So I approached the Graveyard Book with mixed emotions: it’s Neil Gaiman, it won the Hugo, it was going to be good; but would it be good enough to convert the heathens?  To tanscend the ghetto and find wider appeal across the literary world?  To inspire others to discard their comic book preconceptions and actually read the Sandman?  Given the Young Adult tag, the answer was probably: no, but even so, a treat in store surely for the observant faithful.

Aged two, Nobody Owens (Bod) narrowly escapes being murdered with the rest of his family, by the man Jack – a tall dark stranger with a long knife.  At the critical moment, Bod wanders innocently into a nearby graveyard cum nature-reserve, where Mr and Mrs Owens (RIP) remove him from harm’s way.  With the help of another tall dark stranger – a mysterious graveyard interloper called Silas, who’s neither alive nor dead – Mr and Mrs Owens persuade the rest of the graveyard’s inhabitants to allow them to adopt Bod.  This presents immediate practical problems, as none of those souls buried in the graveyard can leave it, yet someone must provide regular food supplies.  Silas offers to act as Bod’s guardian, as he can come and go as he pleases, and uses the graveyard as a base for his frequent visits into the wider world.  With that settled, the stage is set for Bod’s unconventional upbringing; no proper school but plenty of time to explore the extensive grounds and befriend the eccentric residents, some of whom date back to Roman times and beyond.  It goes without saying that on no account must Bod leave the safety of the graveyard, the man Jack is still out there and, it turns out, anxious to finish the job.

We are now deep in Gaiman territory: idiosyncratic but heart-in-the-right-place characters, a niave but determined protagonist and a Burton-esque gothic theme.  Bod meets ghosts, ghouls, vampires, a witch, a werewolf, the mysterious Sleer who live in a crypt buried deep in the heart of the hill, and a real-live friend called Scarlett.   Their influence on the story appears to be passing but the long-time Gaiman devotee just knows that they’ll play some clever and critical part later on, as the book reaches its conclusion.  Gaiman is adept at breathing new life into gothic archetypes and folklore; I particularly liked the dance macabre, an irregular festival eagerly anticipated by the ghosts, as they are for one night, allowed to leave the graveyard and descend into town.  Though the townsfolk don’t know why, they have made their own preparations for a night they will spend, literally, dancing with death, communing with their ancestors in a celebration of lives past and lives still being lived

The importance of living and celebrating life is the central theme of the Graveyard Book.  To young Bod, the unchanging, predictable and safe lives of the dead – after all, what’s the worst that can happen? – must seem very attractive compared to living in constant fear of the man Jack and his big knife.  But the dead don’t see it that way: being alive means you can change, not just yourself but the world around you;  Bod can grow and learn and meet new friends.  It’s a message to us all: in the midst of life we are in death, but it is this very knowledge which defines the lives we lead and gives us the reason to live them to their fullest.  Silas in particular, goes to great lengths to protect Bod, as he understands this essential truth: while Bod lives, he can still bring about change; in the context of the story, the change will have implications for every man Jack of them.

As it turns out, Silas needn’t have worried.  Bod has no intention of skulking in fear behind the safety of the cemetry gates and in one memorable passage explains that when it comes to the man Jack: ‘the question isn’t, “who’ll keep me safe from him?”… it’s “who will keep him safe from me?”‘  This takes us to the heart of Gaiman’s sucess as a teller of (fairy)tales, he finds fresh and radical ways to retell the archetypal stories; his protagonists aren’t impotent dolls, unquestioningly buffeted by events and stronger characters, they’re emancipated and unafraid to take control of their destinies.  Another one of Gaiman’s divine powers is alchemy, his potions turn base elements into literary gold, bringing together themes, characters and traditional stories, adding a few secret ingredients of his own, cooking up a lyrical brew that is so much more than the sum of its parts.  One puts the book down feeling enriched and uplifted, infused with a new sense of joie de vive.

The Graveyard Book has been marketed – rightly in my view – as a Young Adult title and while I would unhesitatingly recommend it to any young adults who ask, it’s a little linear, simplistic and short for me (a not so young adult).  We learn little of Silas and the organisation to which he belongs, or indeed of any of the other characters beyond what is required by the plot.  Whole worlds and themes are glimpsed tantalisingly on the peripherary but left undeveloped as we stay close to Bod.  The objective reviewer in me can see that this is probably as it should be for a young adult novel, and judged on its own terms, it’s difficult to disagree with the Hugo award.  But the highly subjective Gaiman fan in me, wishes greedily for more.  And more. 

Prophets have long foretold the second coming of Neil Gaiman as a writer of multi-layered prose novels as intriate, rich and rewarding as the Sandman.  There are many latter-day nay-sayers, not least I suspect Neil Gaiman himself, who has said that he was a borderline workaholic during the late eighties / early nineties.  The Graveyard Book has much to recommend it, particularly to its target audience, but it isn’t the holy book some of us have been anticipating all these years.  True believer that I am though, I’ll continue to keep the faith.

October 1, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

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Where do I start?  An 18th Century lawyer, returning home to America having picked up a nasty tropical disease on Chatham Island?  An inter-war musician and scoundrel, down to trouser-change, prevailing upon an ailing Belgian composer in a desperate last bid to make his reputation?  A 1970’s junior hack, drawn into a political conspiracy following a chance meeting with a scientist in a broken-down elevator?  A failed contemporary publisher who strikes it lucky following the imprisonment for murder of one of his authors?  A sensually deprived worker-drone, bred for a human cloning program, in a near future dominated by mega corporations?  Or a Hawaiian tribesman from a post-apocalyptic far-future, visited by technologically advanced foreigners who harness the power of ‘smart’ that they themselves have inherited from an earlier age?

Although superficially Cloud Atlas – Mitchell’s third novel – starts chronologically with the first of these tales and works forward, we should really start with the last, which has all the other narratives nested in it, like Russian dolls.  The Hawaiian tribesman is shown a holographic recording of the testimony of the drone-worker, who watches a film about the failed publisher, who has been sent a draft novel about the junior hack, who finds the letters of the musician, who reads the diary of the lawyer.  The reader can only grasp this retrospectively though, as the book’s physical structure works the other way: the last post-apocalyptic story is told in full (the tiny whole doll at the centre), cushioned between two halves of the tale of the drone, which is itself nested in the two halves of the story of the publisher and so on.

This rather baroque structure serves as a showcase for Mitchell’s narrative skill as he draws us into one fully realised world and genre after another, leaving each abruptly; just as we’re hooked and don’t want to be dragged away.  The design also serves as a metaphor for one of the themes of the book itself: echoes in time; projected futures and historical facts, emenating outwards in virtual waves of ever-increasing speculation from the firm reality of the present-day.  The further we travel in either direction, the more that accepted ‘fact’ becomes the propoganda of those powerful enough to control the flow of information.  As one character postulates: ‘he who pays the historian calls the tune’ .  The book’s scaffolding allows the author to demonstrate this and other themes by having them recur, in mutated forms, across all the narratives and timescales.  It’s clever stuff.

At this point, I should declare an interest:  I read and enjoyed Ghostwritten (Mitchell’s debut) and, though it was a straight-up non-genre novel about life in a Worcestershire village in the 1980’s, Black Swan Green (the successor to Cloud Atlas) was one of my favourite reads of recent years.  Mitchell has a knack for imbuing a readable and engaging narrative, with insight and depth and his flair for inhabiting established genres with unique voices is in full-effect here.  Each story is intricately realised in a style appropriate to the timeline and, while the characters are not always sympathetic, their world-views, expressed in colourful phrases, rich similies and time-specific colloquialisms are convincing, always engrossing and occasionally very funny.  Confronted by a wilfully bureaucratic platform ticket-office, the failed publisher recounts: ‘Sometimes the fluffy bunny of credulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.’

Cloud Atlas itself is a musical score, written by the failed composer, to a structure which closely resembles the layout of the book.  In keeping with the metaphor of the book as a musical symphony, motifs and repeating refrains run throughout the individual narratives like clouds across the sky.  As we traverse time, sun-like, from a victorian past to the zenith of a post-apocalyptic future, before descending back through the years again, Mitchell covers some big themes: the human will to power, the exploitation of people and resources which has fuelled our technological advance and how our natural instincts, evolved to enable us to survive, lead to moral values which now trail hopelessly behind our god-like ability to shape the world in which we live.   This last point is particularly pertinent at a time when our rampant individualism threatens to deplete the planet and degrade the environment which sustains us.  But Mitchell does not preach to us, on the whole; he shows us lives lived centuries apart, throws in some common strands and allows us to join the dots.

I did not buy the idea of souls crossing generations ‘like clouds’ in a form of secular reincarnation and, Mitchell wisely steers clear of any overt exposition of this concept, despite the blurb on the back of my copy pushing this angle.  On the other hand, I really like the inherent contradiction contained in the idea of an atlas of clouds.  This plays a more personal role in characters’ lives, as, deprived of the long view granted the reader, they try to make sense of the random chaos of their own lives and times: ‘what wouldn’t I give now’ says one ‘for a never changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?’  It would be all too easy for this combination of short and long-term powerlessness to become overwhelming but Mitchell’s message is one of hope ultimately.  In the face of immutable laws, it turns out that life and human nature is our best chance; each story ends with an individual victory of one form or another: ‘courage grows anywhere, like weeds.’  Going against the grain of the rest of the book, the concluding pages are perhaps a little explicit in making the case for the real change, which can be achieved by large groups of individuals working, not out of short-term self-interest, but for the common good.  We must hope Mitchell is right though, and we need novels of this quality and writers with this vision and insight to continually remind us that though the obstacles may seem insurmountable, there are some things about humanity which are worth the effort to save.

September 15, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 3 Comments

The Year of Our War – Steph Swainston

swainston

My first foray into the realms of New Weird and I’m developing the seeds of an analogy with the 1970s music scene.  In 1976 popular music was dominated by Prog Rock dinosaurs like Pink Floyd, Lead Zep and Genesis, bands who’d taken muso meanderings to unprecedented lengths and whole new levels of tedium.  Punk Rock was the jack-booted antidote, not just re-writing the musical rule-book but setting fire to it and stomping all over it with its size ten Dockers.  Out went the twenty minute wig-outs from classically trained musicians, to be replaced by three minute power chords by teenagers who barely knew one end of a guitar from the other.  The analogy doesn’t work entirely – for one thing, Steph Swainston clearly knows how to write – but the worst excesses of multi-volumed genre fantasy (stand up Robert Jordan), were clearly ripe for a thorough re-working by a new generation of bright young (cyber)punks.

Swainston’s literary skill notwithstanding, there’s a real sense of back-to-basics with The Year of Our War, her debut novel.   All but the barest exposition and description is jettisoned – Swainston has said that she consciously left it out as she doesn’t enjoy reading it herself – in favour of character and narrative.  Prose is tight and often colloquial, though generally more than merely functional; I was struck by the author’s ability to express everyday experiences in new and economical ways: ‘I yawned and stretched, decongealing’, on waking after a heavy night.  Furthermore, the Fourlands world itself looks and feels nothing like a traditional fantasy setting; characters wear jeans, read newspapers, take showers and use syringes to inject hard drugs.  This is something different: a leaner, grittier update on traditional fare.

Jant Shira is Comet, one of fifty immortals who represent the best that the Fourlands has to offer across various useful disciplines (fighting, archery, sailing, healing and so on).  God has left the building and the Emporer, in his capacity as caretaker manager, bestows immortality on the most outstanding of his subjects, to help tip the balance in the ongoing war against the invading insect hoard.  Comet is the Emporer’s messenger and Jant has been elevated to this position because he alone in the world, can use his vestigial wings to fly.  Jant is also addicted to Cat; a class A drug if ever there was one, which when taken in sufficient quantities, transports users to the Shift, a parallel world with insect problems of its own.  So far, so far out; Return to Rivendell this ain’t!

Swainston’s style has real potential to thrill.  Eschewing fantasy convention we cut straight to the action and experience the world viscerally, from inside Jant’s head; high in both senses, as he surveys terrain on the wing or escapes it all in the Shift.  Although the lack of exposition and profusion of new terms can be confusing at first, the narrative rattles on, unencumbered by scene-setting or unnecessary description.  For me though, the thrill isn’t enough.  While Jant’s character is portrayed in all its contradictory glory, other protagonists are little more than one-dimensional puppets – Lightning, the Archer, being the only possible exception here – not stereotypical exactly but appearing so briefly and acting so definitively, as to leave little room for depth or nuance.  Similarly, both worlds have been boiled down to a collection of names on a map, distinguished only by their ability to hold out against the insects, with little or no attempt to breathe life or individual character into different places.  Swainston has said that she prefers readers to be able to imagine the world for themselves but that’s not what does it for me.  I want to believe in these places and the people who inhabit them, I need more than white knuckle rides to get me there.

Worse still, I wasn’t convinced by the internal logic of the landscape, based on what little we are told.   You might characterize the Fourlands as a medieval-feudal society, with regional barons commanding loyalty from local peasant populations; fighting wars with bow and sword.  No trace of industrialisation or communication networks capable of manufacturing and distributing jeans, showers or syringes, for example.  I also found myself asking how, in a world where an entire race has vestigial wings, only one of them can fly?  And how individuals can be made immortal one moment and then un-made the next?  At first I applauded the attempt to do something different but by the end I was disappointed that the world as described was not capable of sustaining my belief in it.  The array of genuinely new concepts don’t mesh together convincingly, leaving me with the feeling that too many ideas are thrown into the mix, used as little more than alternative plot devices in an otherwise fairly standard tale of kingdom-under-threat-from-border-aliens; the New Weirdness theme pasted-on.  Perhaps this is the point in a fantasy world where realism isn’t what we’re here for and descriptive brevity is the intention?  Perhaps this is what New Weird is all about?  Yet China Mieville has said that the trick is to let your imagination run wild but then be rigorous in following through the implications: ‘to be both as incredible/impossible and as rigorous/scientific as possible. In which case, the cardinal sin isn’t to be a “fantasist” and use magic, but to be internally inconsistent, or to use either magic or “sf-nal” technology as a Get-Out-of-Plot-Difficulty-Free card.’  I’d echo that, for me even imagined worlds have to feel real, internal consistency transforms a collection of good ideas into a world I can believe in.

Mieville supplies the blurb for the cover of my copy of the Year of Our War, so he clearly enjoyed this more than I.  Perhaps I’m being too harsh on what is, after all, a debut novel.  There’s plenty of loose threads and story seeds to follow through on and maybe later installments will resolve some of my issues. Unfortunately I can’t say I’m eagerly anticipating the next book, which is a shame because there’s plenty to admire here. So where does this leave me when it comes to New Weird?  It’s far too early to draw any serious conclusions but I’m starting to see where the approach taken by Swainston (and the rest of the New Weird vanguard) might lead. In 1977 the original punk bands gave the whole scene a shot in the arm, but most of the really interesting music was made by those who came after, the so-called Post-Punks: Joy Division, Public Image Limited and Orange Juice for example.  Bands who took the energy and do-it-yourself ethos of the original movement but fused them with the best of the musical traditions that had gone before.  In doing so they created new and interesting directions for popular music without losing sight of the requirement to write good songs along the way.  There’s still plenty of scope for writers to break the fantasy mould but I’d like to see it done in a more coherent and fully realised way than here.

August 17, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 2 Comments

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