Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review: 'The Delinquent Teenager' by Donna Laframboise

This 'exposé' of the IPCC, the UN body which assesses the climate change science, has polarised its readership exactly as climate change does - you are either for or against, it seems. So the reviews are either glowing 4/5 star affairs, or outraged 1 stars. Well, my middle name has always been awkward, so I'm going to put this firmly in the three star box - it's a lightweight little effort, fluffing a small amount of actual data into a book-length diatribe.

Much of the supposed scandal is, to be honest, not very dramatic. So some of the authors of the IPCC's reports are students and mere graduates? A science graduate is still a scientist, and the quality (or otherwise) of the science is all that really matters. So some of the authors are also publishing their own research, which they then quote? I would expect a climate scientist worthy of inclusion in IPCC to be conducting research and publishing it, in fact, it would be more of a worry if they weren't (they are supposed to be experts on the subject, after all). So the head honcho makes glib statements not borne out by the facts? This happens in any big organisation.

And shock horror - the IPCC is a political organisation. Of course it is, it's part of the UN, a wholly political body, funded by national governments to create an entire extra layer of bureaucracy. Like any parasitic bureaucracy, it has no actual political power, but it has great influence, and is self-serving, self-perpetuating and effectively accountable to no one.

The author does a useful job pulling together some of the biggest outrages perpetrated by the IPCC. It put forward the view that climate change was making hurricanes more frequent and more severe. It proposed that natural disasters cost more because of climate change. It warned that malaria would spread because of warming. It suggested that the Himalayan glaciers were melting faster than expected. All of these contradicted the consensus views of experts, and were not supported by hard evidence.

Then there is the infamous hockey stick graph, showing temperatures flat for a thousand years and a sharp recent rise, thereby ignoring the well-known Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. It's worth quoting the reaction of geologist Don Easterbrook on this: "If you look in GeoRef, which is the bibliography for publications in geology, you will find 485 papers on the Medieval Warm Period and you'll find 1,413 on the Little Ice Age. So the total number of papers in the geologic literature is 1,900. And we're expected to believe that one curve [based on] tree rings is going to overturn all of those 1,900 papers? I don't think so." Several people have devoted a lot of time and effort to working out just where the hockey stick graph came from and finding the flaws in the data and analysis behind it, and the IPCC has quietly dropped it from its latest publication, but it was hugely influential at the time.

There have been many books published over the years about climate change (on both sides of the debate) and the argument has become increasingly acrimonious. This book looks closely at the organisation most responsible for bringing the issues to public attention, and persuading governments to do something about it. Given the high stakes and costs involved, and the implications for those impacted by government action, it was time for an investigation of the IPCC. This book questions the process it uses, its standards and methods, and even its motivations. There is nothing terribly profound or surprising in here, but it needed to be said. Three stars.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Review: 'Women in the Middle Ages' by Frances and Joseph Gies

I read a lot of fantasy novels, many of which are set in a gloomy created world not unlike the European middle ages. This book was my attempt to see whether the truly dismal picture painted therein has any truth in it.

The book discusses the life of women in the thousand years or so from around 600AD to 1600AD, illustrated by a detailed look at the lives of a few specific women of whom accurate records exist. It's fairly dry, academic stuff, but there is a great deal of information in there.

How accurate are the fantasies? It's true that women's lives were very hard, and few below the level of royalty were able to sit around waited on by servants while they embroidered. Childbirth was risky, children routinely died before maturity, and adults, too, were often carried off prematurely by illness or accident. Medical knowledge was rudimentary, at best. Wealthier families had to fight to maintain and improve their position in society (sometimes literally) while peasants struggled to find enough to eat and pay their rents.

It's true, too, that women were regarded as subservient to men - their fathers, brothers, husbands and local lords (but men were also subservient to their masters and lords). Nevertheless, they could and did work and run businesses on their own account, they could inherit property and land, they could resort to law to defend their rights. Widows in particular could take over the rights of their dead husband, carrying on his business or craft, training apprentices and so on. And although marriage was an economic, not romantic, proposition for all ranks, wives were an essential adjunct to the partnership and (royalty apart) not just there to produce children. So although inequality was enshrined in law, the practical application was very different.

Review: 'The Wit and Wisdom of Discworld' by Terry Pratchett

We live in an age of miracles. I say to my daughter - I'd love to read all the Discworld books but there are just too many, why doesn't someone distill all the best bits into one book for me? And lo, here it is! The snippets vary from laugh out loud funny to groan-worthy to mildly amusing to silly to fairly incomprehensible without context. And even in such small doses, the Pratchett sense of humour tends to pall quite quickly, I find. There is genuine wit (and wisdom) here, but it's largely buried under a deluge of cheap gags.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Review: 'The Steel Remains' by Richard K Morgan

This is not a book for everyone. I guess you either love it or hate it, no in between. Graphic violence, graphic sex, a shedload of seriously weird beasties and enough swearing to last the average squaddie or indie-band-with-attitude for a couple of lifetimes. Anyone sensitive to the f-word should move swiftly on. But, for a gritty realism fantasy, it has a charm all its own. The main character, Ringil, is a pugnacious, arrogant, in-yer-face type of bloke, a world-weary ex-warrior who prefers to settle any kind of dispute with a barrage of expletive-laden abuse, followed in short order by some good, solid killing. Not a guy to mess with, then, but quite fun to see in action.

He also happens to be gay. Now, this is a nice take on the fantasy warrior stereotype, and, were this simply a subtle character motif, would merit no more than an approving footnote. World-saving hero is gay - hoorah! But Morgan doesn't do subtle. Ringil is just as pugnacious, arrogant and in-yer-face about his sexual preferences as everything else, and since homosexuality is illegal in this particular world, this creates problems as he punches his way through all levels of society. Fortunately, his family is both rich and powerful, which allows him to escape any kind of retribution for his actions. It's a pity, however, that his aggressive gayness is almost the only source of dramatic tension in his thread in the early part of the book, so that somehow everything that happens to him turns out to be about him being gay. It's pointed out explicitly on page 1, and in case we miss that, there are repeated comments about queers and faggots. When he meets the local inquisitor, his venom is not just because he's a snotty little lowlife upstart, but that the man once had a lover of Ringil's executed, horribly and painfully. When he rescues a former soldier from trouble, it turns out the trouble arose from beating up gays. Oh the irony <sigh>. So what might have been simply a fantasy novel which just happens to have a gay protagonist, turns out to be a novel about a gay bloke which just happens to be fantasy.

Even this, in itself, would not be so bad, if the created world were not so disappointingly unoriginal. The author can be endlessly creative when it comes to races and bizarre lifeforms and gruesome methods of execution, but the rest of it... Blokes pack into the local tavern for alcohol, whores and a jolly good fight. The church is an evil, repressive force. The emperor is dissolute and has the inevitable harem. Local officialdom is corrupt. Slavery (particularly sex slavery) is legal. Women are domestic drudges, whores or mothers, while men (particularly rich men) run everything. This is both a grotesque caricature of the semi-recent past, and also a very common portrayal of a fantasy world, to the extent that it's almost a cliche.

The treatment of women in this book makes me very uneasy. It is commonplace in fantasy with a pseudo-medieval background to portray society as an entrenched patriarchal one, where women have no role beyond those defined by men - daughter, wife or mother (of a man), sexual plaything (of a man), low-level servant (of a man). This is something of a distortion of the true medieval situation, where women, while not enjoying equality, nevertheless had many rights and some independence (which varied according to time and place and her exact position in society, but was never, ever as bad as portrayed here). Very often the fantasy version is also pretty grim for men, but they still have far greater powers than women do, and some freedom of movement, choice of employment and so on.

In this book virtually all the women depicted are whores or sex-slaves (compulsory unpaid whores) or promiscuous (voluntary unpaid whores). Even characters who might be expected to be gender neutral (innkeepers or house servants, for example) are male. There are two exceptions. One is Ringil's mother, who was married at the age of thirteen to a man she dislikes (also a kind of sex-slave, actually). The other is Archeth, who is an advisor to the emperor (and is therefore at the disposal of a man). Other women mentioned in passing (like the wife of Egar's brother) are spoken of disparagingly, or, like Erith, are barking. Even the female dwenda is bitchy. Why would an author do this? When you can create any kind of world your imagination can dream up, why confine yourself to this already over-worked vision? Low-technology doesn't necessarily equate with the worst kind of patriarchal society, and even if an author wishes to explore the dark side of humanity, it's surely possible to invest the background with some original twists, and populate it with ordinary people (male and female) just getting on with life.

But having said all that, the book is actually an exciting, pacy read. Apart from Ringil, the other two main characters are both ex-war comrades. Egar is head of his clan of herdsmen, but finding himself increasingly uncomfortable in the role. Archeth, as mentioned, is an engineer in the service of the emperor. Their plot threads are less dramatic than Ringil's, but still interesting, partly because they illuminate different corners of the created world and its history, and here the author has done a better job than with the social structures. The places all feel very believable (and I like that there's no moon, just a band of something-or-other draped across the sky), and there's a nicely-worked out history, with pieces cleverly dropped here and there. There is a real feeling of depth to the various races, in particular - the recently-departed and technologically superior Kiriath, the semi-legendary and feared dwenda, the defeated lizards, the gods/demons. And there are dragons, ape-like creatures, some strange beasties that prey on corpses... And while the imperial religion, with its Revelation (which allows a man six wives!), is a standard issue repressive hierarchical organised religion, elsewhere the herdsman clans each have their shaman, there are sorcerous rituals going on in far-flung corners, and a general feeling of intriguing complexity. Whether there is any actual magic going on (as opposed to manipulation of natural forces) is not clear.

None of the characters is particularly believable, they're all simply too over the top for that, but Ringil in particular is great fun, especially while in rampaging warrior mode. Egar is fairly superfluous, his sole purpose, apparently, is to play axe-wielding support to Ringil in the big battle (which he does rather well). As for Archeth, being a badass with knives and having a liking for weed is not enough to create a fully rounded character. I found her situation completely unbelievable. In a world entirely dominated by men of power (whether military or financial or religious), where women have (apparently) no role beyond the subservient, Archeth manages to be the only exception. She has no army behind her, no organisation, no money, no unique skills and, it seems, no friends, yet she is treated with a respect bordering on reverence. She is entirely at the mercy of the emperor, yet he protects her because he promised his father he would? Really? I hope the subsequent books in the series will provide something a little less flimsy than that.

The plot is pretty thin and at times some of the devices required to get the characters into position for the big battle sail dangerously close to (literal) deus ex machina. However, it might be that the gods/demons really are integral to the story rather than a plot device, so I'll reserve judgment on that. The writing style is very Ringil-esque (if I can put it that way) - sharp, aggressive, colourful, vividly over the top, sometimes. Occasionally a metaphor falls flat on its face, but mostly it works. The fight scenes are terrific, especially the final confrontation, which pulses with energy. The sex scenes are fine too, although there's one in particular which felt rather like porn, and I did briefly wonder at one point if I'd drifted into a paranormal romance by mistake. The otherworldly sequences are brilliantly done. It's very difficult to do this kind of not-quite-reality well, but to my mind this was quite the best part of the book. There's an overpowering sense of loss - of innocence, of simplicity, of clarity of purpose, of lives and loves and friends and youth.

This is one of those books that, while recognising some flaws, I nevertheless enjoyed immensely. It had passion and depth and thought-provoking undertones, and some nice sci-fi-ish nuances. Morgan's writing is flamboyantly self-confident, in a show-offy kind of way, although I don't think it's quite as clever or original as it likes to think. There's plenty of humour, too, which is always a plus. Being the first part of a trilogy, there's scope for the author to develop his themes, round off his characters and fill in the gaps in the background with (hopefully) some more realistic female roles. And Ringil's gayness works, too, and brings an unexpected resonance to his interactions with the dwenda; I don't think that part of the book would have worked nearly as well as it does with a heterosexual main character. Four stars.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Review: 'The Silence of Medair' by Andrea K Höst

For those who say all self-published works are dross - this book is a stunning counter example. The manuscript spent an unbelievable ten years - I'll say that again, TEN years! - languishing with a single publisher before the author withdrew it in disgust and self-published. You can see why they might have had a problem with it, because it's very different from the average. It's intelligent, thought-provoking and well written. It avoids cliches. It's character-driven fantasy at its best. It's also a cracking story. I loved it.

The opening is, surely, how all fantasy novels should begin: not by parachuting the reader into the middle of a battle, or some gruesome moment intended purely to shock, but quietly, with the main character in her setting, then adding in the mysterious background, some magic and a threat, to draw you in. But then this is an unusual book in a number of different ways. Many of the events which other writers would turn into a whole trilogy - a massive magic-induced disaster, an empire threatened by invasion, an escalating, seemingly unwinnable, war, a desperate race to find a magic gizmo to turn the tide, and then, miraculously, actually finding said gizmo - all happened five hundred years in the past, and are revealed only briefly in passing. The author even resists the temptation to put them into a prologue. Instead, the story starts some months after the primary character, Medair, has returned with the gizmo, only to find that centuries have passed, the invaders have become the establishment and she herself is the outsider. Her sense of dislocation, and how she adjusts to the new regime, form the substance of the book.

The created world is not outrageously original, just the standard-issue pseudo-medieval arrangement, with a few little touches to make it different, and happily no hackneyed taverns, assassins, thieves, whores and the like, and no gratuitous violence or sex. So this is a relatively civilised and orderly world, where the complications are political rather than societal. And unlike many low-technology worlds, there's a relaxed gender-neutrality in operation. Women can, and do, become soldiers, heralds, mages, whatever they have an aptitude for. They can inherit empires, too. I get tired of the patriarchy thoughtlessly assumed in most fantasy.

And there's magic, of course. Oodles of magic. There are mages and adepts (which may be the same thing, I'm not clear about that) who have quite powerful abilities, and there are also magical artifacts. There is also 'wild magic', which is hugely, earth-shatteringly powerful (literally) and very unpredictable. I liked the way that magic can be sensed in some physical way, some kind of feeling that allows a character attuned to it to know that magic is being used, and sometimes what kind, and where, and how powerful it is. That was neat.

But it has to be said that sometimes the magic borders on being deus ex machina. The heroine gets into a tricky situation and has only to reach into her dimensionally flexible satchel and pull out some magic gizmo or other to effect her escape. Or else another character waves his or her hands around and - pow, she is magically constrained to do something or other. Is it really deus ex machina if we know ahead of time that the satchel contains magical gizmos, or that the character is a mage? Not sure, but it certainly made a very convenient plot device. On the other hand, it allowed the heroine to use her own self-reliance and not be dependent on a bloke turning up with a sword or a spell to rescue her. In fact, she was usually the one rescuing the blokes.

The heart of the book is the nature of the Ibisians, the invaders of five hundred years earlier, now the establishment. Medair's hatred and mistrust of them is still fresh, and the scenes between them crackle with tension, as she tries to adjust her strong and perhaps legitimate feelings to this new world order. The issue is complicated, too, by the other countries and factions still fighting against the new rulers. Where exactly do her loyalties lie? She has the magic gizmo which will destroy the invaders, but are these people still her enemies five centuries later? These themes - of loyalty and oppression and enforced compliance and the nature of colonialism - weave throughout the story.

This part of the book is beautifully done. The subtle and not so subtle differences between the world Medair remembers and the current one are neatly drawn - the architecture, clothing, food, mannerisms and customs - so that we first see the invaders through Medair's eyes as strangely alien beings, and only gradually begin to soften towards them as we get to know them better. It becomes apparent that five hundred years of assimilation has worked both ways, and these Ibisians are not the same as the enemy of Medair's own time.

The plot revolves around Medair's struggles with her own antipathies and growing respect for the Ibisians, so there is a great deal of introspection and (it has to be said) downright angsting going on. There were a few moments when I wished she would stop agonising and just get on with it. But fortunately there was enough action interspersed with the angst to keep things rattling along. There were a few places where I wasn't too sure what was going on, where a little more explanation or description would have helped. Occasionally the complex hierarchy of the Ibisians caught me out (all the ranks begin with a 'k', so they begin to blur together), and sometimes I wasn't even sure which character Medair was talking to. But these are minor issues, which never seriously affected my enjoyment. This is a great read, a story with an intriguing premise, unexpected twists and plenty of action. It's also that rare beast, a fantasy novel with a truly strong female lead character who's not remotely a stereotype. I recommend it. A good four stars.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Review: 'The Ascendancy Veil' by Chris Wooding

I have to confess to some disappointment with this, the final part of the 'Braided Path' trilogy. The first two were terrific, with great world-building, a brilliant magic system and a suitably apocalyptic threat to be dealt with, and if some of the characters were not all that interesting, it hardly mattered. But this book, despite a resounding climax and some nifty tying up of numerous plot threads, felt - just meh.

As usual, Wooding dumps us right into the middle of the action, without a moment to catch our breath. Not a writer to ease the reader gently into the story. He's very good, however, at scattering gentle hints as a reminder of the previous two books. The story picks up roughly four years after the last book ended, deep into a war between the Weavers (those who can manipulate the underlying 'weave' of the world, something like another dimension) and the remnants of the Empire. Both sides have their Aberrants on hand, twisted evil creatures fighting for the Weavers, and humans with unusual powers, once secret, but now openly supporting the Empire.

I've noted in reviews of the first two parts that Wooding's world-building is absolutely awesome. Everything is here - races, cultures, belief systems, flora and fauna, weather, languages, architecture, even the cutlery - all worked out to the last detail. It makes the average fantasy sort-of-medieval backdrop with peasants and castles seem incredibly dull by comparison. The magic is pretty damn good too. I was a little concerned that Kaiku, whose development has been the focus of the story, has now turned into some kind of River-esque 'I can kill you with my brain' superhero. And that would be very boring. But not to worry, because the Weavers have come up with something even more powerful, something that even Kaiku and her friends can't deal with. And we are beginning to find out about the strange and capricious spirits who also inhabit Saramyr.

The story builds through crisis after crisis and, as in the previous books, it seems that the main characters can't put their noses out of the door without some life-threatening encounter, and every one hyped to the max, and filled with foul monsters and dismembered corpses and all sorts of horrors. You know what? It gets a bit repetitive after a while. And even the relatively quiet moments are full of angst. There always seems to be one character or another over-analysing. I got a little jaded with it.

The characters have acquired some depth (well, over three books they have history, so it's inevitable), but none of them are really particularly likeable or emotionally engaging. Frankly, I just don't care whether they live or die, for the most part. Tsata is the most interesting, by a long way, with an honourable mention for Mishani's mother. Oh, and perhaps Lucia too. But Kaiku has turned into something of a selfish cow. Having being rescued from certain death by others numerous times, and trained to use her powers by the Red Order, she now starts agonising about - well, everything. She turns against the Red Order, she encourages Lucia to think of herself first (bit late for that), and she is horrible to Tsata. [Spoiler below] And yet she is nice to the one person who treated her abominably.

The problem for me is that this book is so dismal. All the things I loved about the first two - the weird flora and fauna, the etiquette, the elegant lifestyle and rituals of the Empire - all that is effectively gone, and the story staggers from one horrendous battle of monsters to another. It's like Frodo and Sam endlessly trekking through Mordor, really depressing stuff. Actually, it's worse, because there is so much gore and blood and spilled entrails and limbs chopped off, each monster more hideous and unbeatable than the last. And although everything that happen is completely logical, and feels as if the whole story was worked out from day one, there was no emotional resonance to it, in the end. Three stars.


On Kaiku and Tsata: I mean, really. She has been mooning over him for three quarters of the book, she forces him to declare himself, and then, when they are just about to set off on a suicidal mission, the obvious time to get it together, she says - well, actually, I really need to think about this. And starts agonising over the fact that her powers will make her live longer than him. Not if you both die horribly in the next chapter. I mean, get a grip, woman, just get on with it.

Review: 'Elantris' by Brandon Sanderson

This was really difficult to get into. Nice starting premise, nice magic system, but cardboard characters, unbelievable plot, clunky writing style and ponderous humour. And nothing happens for chapter after chapter, apart from people milling about having things explained to them. And the names! Raoden, Reod, Shaod, Heod, Seon, Iadon, Hrathen, Kiin, Telrii... what was the author thinking? Well, typical debut book, I suppose.

There are three main characters with their own plots threads. Raoden, the king's son, is banished to the once glorious city of Elantris, and the world is told he is dead. Sarene, his newly-arrived betrothed, now widow, has to make sense of the political machinations of court. Hrathen, a priest, has the task of converting the entire kingdom to his religion. Hrathen is the only one with any real complexity to him.

The world-building is mostly perfunctory. Elantris itself and its one remaining satellite town of Kae are the focus of all the action. They are reasonably well described, and various other parts of the world are merely mentioned in passing. Each has its own culture, but somehow they never really come alive. There are comments about styles of dress and customs, but these are not very convincing. There are various different religions which are well differentiated (they have to be, since Hrathen's brand is significant to the plot) but I wasn't very sold on the idea that one branch is more based on 'truth' than the others. How do you even distinguish truth in an entirely faith-based system?

The world is disappointingly patriarchal. Considering that until ten years ago the culture revolved around Elantris, which was far more egalitarian, how did women become so side-lined, to the point that intelligent women were forced to hide behind their embroidery? And while I appreciate the author's attempt to introduce a feisty, spirited, self-willed (ie modern) woman in Sarene, perhaps someone should tell him that 'assertive' is not the same as bossy. Nor is it such a bad thing to be assertive, even in a patriarchal society, particularly within the nobility. A man may not want an argumentative wife, but even if he banishes her to the domestic sphere, she still has a castle full of servants to organise, not a job for the timid. Nor do I believe for one moment that Sarene would be unable to find herself a husband, however tall or bossy she might be. King's daughters get married for political reasons, and there would have been princes and dukes queued up round the block, even if she looked like the back end of a carthorse. And her much-vaunted intelligence was not greatly in evidence, either. Half her schemes ended in near-disaster, with the feisty heroine having to be rescued by the blokes.

But the real problem with this book lies in the plotting. Everything the characters are required to do depends on everyone around them being mindless and stupid. Elantris lost its magic and power ten years ago, yet no one had thought of any of the ideas Raoden comes up with? No one had looked into the Aons (magic symbols) before, not even the surviving original Elantrians, who (you would have thought) might have had some inkling of what had gone wrong, or at least known where to look to find the answer? Yet Raoden works it out in a matter of weeks. And then there's Sarene, who arrives from a distant kingdom and starts making pushy suggestions to the nobles, and they all say: stone me, that's a good idea, never thought of that. Really? Even the most plausible plot thread, Hrathen's attempt to convert the locals, depends on crowds who can be swayed in unison (very 'Life of Brian': "We are all individuals"). At least the nobles are a bit more independent, even if most of them are also corrupt.

Given all this, and the largely turgid writing style, where everything was explained by way of lengthy and confusing dialogue, I was finding it really hard to get through. But about half way through, things start to pick up. The three plot threads become intertwined, and suddenly things get very unpredictable, with some nice twists and turns right to the end (thank goodness, since the ending was obvious virtually from page 1). Some of it was a bit contrived, but never mind. And even the inevitable romance feels like an organic part of the story, not something squeezed into a corner to be produced with a flourish at the last moment.

The real star of the show, however, is the magic system - a way of 'writing' symbols which harnesses some natural power. This is beautifully developed over the course of the book, and the way it is revealed to be interwoven with the culture and even the country itself is very clever. I liked the mysterious Seon beings, too. So despite all the flaws, and the complete lack of emotional engagement with any of the characters, this merits a good three stars.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: 'The Time Weaver' by Thomas A Knight

I really liked the opening of this one - a dramatic wizardy end-of-the-world type battle, which turns out to be - well, something else (not wanting to spoil the surprise). An elegant way to introduce the main characters and the backstory in one go.

The plot is not the most original ever for a fantasy novel. There's a King. Check. Beautiful Warrior Babe. Check. Wizards. Check. Farm boy with unsuspected magical powers. Check. [OK, so he's a geeky software developer, same deal.] Magic Sword. Check. The Dark Lord. Check. [Didn't he get defeated before? Once or twice?] Well, nothing wrong with the familiar tropes, if the author adds a new twist. This one has a mystery (what happened to the software guy's father), and some nice humour wrapped round the cross-universe culture clash. The warrior babe assumes modern world people are peasants because they have no swords. Well, you would, wouldn't you? And Seth (geeky software guy) is astonished by simple fire-lighting magic, and horrified at being asked to use a sword: "Do I look like the kind of person that can handle a sword?"

This is all good knockabout stuff, no problem there. And I like that Seth isn't just spirited away to the alternate universe in the middle of the night, to be returned later (presumably) with no one any the wiser. Instead it all happens in the middle of a busy intersection, with a mega pile-up going on, leaving behind a dead monster and lots of witnesses to swear they saw a knight in armour kill said monster with a sword and then walk into a big blue hole  with an unconscious man and vanish.  Great fun.

So far, so good. Unfortunately the writing isn't quite up to the promise of the opening. The characters are all rather stereotyped, with not much subtlety to them. There's a lot of heavy description of people and places, the point of view hops about confusingly, and we rarely get any sense of what the characters are feeling, although Seth's sense of disorientation is clear. Sometimes the tension in a dramatic scene is dissipated instantly by a particularly clunky line. After a wizard meets a vividly gruesome end, we get only: "The remaining five council members suffered a similar fate..." There are quite a few typos, too, like 'isle' instead of 'aisle', 'peal' instead of 'peel' and the inevitable 'peaked' instead of 'piqued'. I can ignore the over frequent use of 'shall', which is probably intended to sound archaic, and the lack of 'had' (as in 'Some healers arrived already and...') which is an Americanism, I think, but the use of 'that' instead of 'who' really grated (as in '...children that ran about'). My pedantic school teachers would never have allowed it. Nitpicks, maybe, but if you notice them they really interfere with the suspension of disbelief.

The story jumps backwards and forwards between the two worlds, which works rather well. However, the modern world investigation into the incident soon turns up DNA differences between Malia (the Warrior Babe) and regular humans, and Seth is even more different. The military immediately jump to the weapons potential. This makes the whole magic business no more than a matter of chromosomes, and somehow it all becomes far more mundane. I don't mind magic that has a system or rules of some kind, but when there's an actual sciencey-type explanation for it, it loses its - well, its magic. As for the need for words to make magic happen, that's fine, it's a bit of a tradition, but I've always thought that in a wizard battle, you'd really want to choose the spells with the fewest words. Or else talk really, really fast. Apart from that, the magic system is nicely thought out, and I like the way a defended spell turns itself against the caster, with dire consequences.

Just as I thought things were straying into military scifi territory, the campy Cedric and the Man in Black turn up and the plot really cranks into high gear. After that, it's a matter of hanging on tight as things roller-coaster to the end. If you like wizardy thunderbolt battles and armies of weird creatures and the whole farmboy turned hero scenario, not to mention some interference from the gods, this book is for you. There's nothing wildly original in any of this, but if you can ignore the rather flat and heavy writing style, and you don't expect too much depth, it's an entertaining romp. I'm not sure what age group the author is aiming for but there are some wonderfully gruesome moments that would appeal to a certain type of child: "His eyes exploded out as his brain superheated in his skull, and then he fell to the ground, smoke rising from his empty eye sockets." Eew, gross. Ultimately, although I kept reading to find out how it ends, and it had some very enjoyable moments and a couple of nice twists at the end, it turned out to be not really my thing, sadly, so combined with the weaknesses in writing, that keeps it at two stars.

Review: 'Lies, Damned Lies and Science' by Sherry Seethaler

I'm not quite sure who the intended audience is for this one. It's a serious and deeply worthy look at how to make sense of the scientific and pseudo-scientific claims in the media, which is probably too heavy for the average curious Joe Public, and not news for anyone already scientifically minded. There are a lot of interesting examples in here, and it's well researched, but the text in-between which explains the general principles is very dry and I often found myself skipping paragraphs. It would suit a teacher looking for real-world examples to explain statistics or psychology or even aspects of politics (the book touches on all of these). I got it for free, somehow (it's quite expensive now), so I'm inclined to be charitable; three stars.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Review: 'Stormfront' by F K Wallace

This is the second part of the 'Stormwatcher' trilogy, and starts off pretty much where part one ended. There is the usual problem with follow-on books of picking up the story again. The characters were easy enough - some were very memorable and for the rest there were deftly placed shorthand reminders - but the politics was a different matter. Dispute with Gault? What was that all about? Sometimes it would be nice if authors gave a helpful two-page summary at the start of the book, as Tolkien did. Here the backstory is scattered all over the book, so some of it came a bit late in the day - the book was almost over before there was a reminder about Carsarrion, for example.

The fallout from book one is the initial focus of the story, and this is largely centred on the two romantic pairings - Ketten and Aravir, and Caedun and Merrell. Both of them started off in difficult, not to say traumatic, circumstances, and now they have to come to terms with the past and decide how they want to move forward. For Ketten and Aravir, both imprisoned and sick, in their different ways, married on an emotional impulse, the problem is in adapting to a normal married life. With Caedun and Merrell, he is the king's bard and closest friend, she is a former slave who was abducted, raped and beaten, and is widely despised, creating a gulf between them.

It is difficult to do this sort of thing well, and fantasy authors are often particularly bad at it. The romance is often bolted on as an afterthought to the main wizardy or sword-wielding aspects, and the (female) love interest becomes subservient to the all-action male. Alternatively, there are entire chapters of hand-wringing over the flimsiest little difficulty. It's not easy to create a relationship which builds in a natural way, but with enough meaningful obstacles to create some real 'will they/won't they' tension.

Wallace, however, does this rather well. The romantic elements of the first book were a minor part of the plot, but were nicely handled, and here she makes all the four characters act in understandable and perfectly believable ways. Ketten and Aravir inch to an understanding, while Caedun and Merrell tiptoe round each other and lurch nearer and then further away, before a crisis forces the issue. Rordan's reactions are realistic, too, and I very much liked that when Merrell was ill, Caedun took her to his own family at the coast to recover. It's all too easy for authors to get swept up in the current part of the tale, so it's nice to find one who remembers where her characters came from. My only complaint is that after such a traumatic experience, Merrell is very quick to find sex enjoyable. But this is fantasy, I suppose.

But if the love affairs are beautifully believable, there are other character aspects which are much less so. The worst of these is Sedeth. Now I daresay there are plot-related reasons for what becomes of him (I don't want to give too much away by going into details here), but for me it was too much of a stretch, I simply don't believe it. It's not even that it was too quick, I just find it impossible. The physical issues, yes, but the psychological? No. Not without magic, anyway.

The first third of the book is taken up with re-establishing the characters, filling in odd bits of the plot and tidying up the leftovers from the previous book. After that, there's a shift of pace as new characters are introduced and we begin to get to the heart of things. Many of the new characters have a sameness to them - this or that child (or adult, but it's mostly a child) suffering abuse is rescued by one or another main character, and taken off to somewhere or other. Quite a number of plot points hinge on someone being extremely cruel to someone else, for no obvious reason. Of course, this sort of thing does happen in the real world, and in some societies such behaviour is endemic, especially against certain races (or women), and the reasons may be very complex, but to my mind fantasy writers need to show clearly why this happens within the context of the story. It just doesn't feel natural to me to find so many otherwise ordinary people being so relentlessly cruel. I feel that Wallace doesn't quite get this right in all cases, and sometimes it feels like just a rather clunky way to introduce a character. And sometimes the rescue teeters on the edge of sentimentality. And to be honest, it does get a bit tedious to have so many characters bravely trying to overcome their dreadful past. They tended to merge together in my mind at first, and when they were in danger, it's not as affecting as it would be for a long-established character.

The created world is rather unoriginal. It's the usual pseudo-medieval low-technology setting, with kingdoms and dukes and swords and taverns and whores and all the rest of it. But the different kingdoms each have their own unique flavour - each one has a different approach to slavery, poverty, education, medicine, religion and so on. And there are elves and magical creatures in the mix, not to mention warring gods. There is nothing terribly wrong with any of this, and the different regions are nicely differentiated. I like the sound of Holt, where younger sons and daughters of the nobility routinely go into the army. And there are some intriguing throwaway lines - like Asra being called De'Mestre, and references to the 'old language' - which add some welcome depth to the setting.

Elves are a bit out of fashion these days, but they still work well as a shorthand for 'another race' - sort of the same, but different - without the bother of creating one from scratch. These elves are not the twee, whimsical version seen in 'The Hobbit', nor the immortals on a higher plane, seen in 'Lord of the Rings'. These are just - well, different, not better or worse than humans. I rather liked them. Or maybe I just haven't read enough fantasy to be jaded by them, who knows.

The plot, and the backstory underpinning it, is becoming clearer now, in the sense that it's more obvious what is happening (or is going to happen) but it still isn't clear why, at least not to me. In particular, there are now several Seriously Bad Guys who are planning to destroy the world or civilisation (or something), but I have no idea what their motives are. This is always an issue with fantasy - is character X just irredeemably evil, and if not, what does he (or she) hope to get out of this? Surely there has to be more to it than a simple desire to rule the world. Not sure why gods do it, mind you. Who knows why gods do anything? But humans (or elves) really need to have a clear motivation for what they do.

The magic system is another aspect that's not overwhelmingly original, but is still rather well done. There are mages who have innate powers and they need to be trained to achieve their full potential. There are no chants or magic wands (thank goodness), just an inner force which can be harnessed in various ways, and such power comes with its own costs. I loved the descriptions of magic being used, particularly when it was all about what the user experienced. Magic really came to the fore in this book, being an important part of the plot, and the author cleverly showed the uncertainty involved in it - both in knowing how to achieve an objective, and then to find the strength to sustain it.

This is not an all-action book. There are no big battles. The political manoeuvrings are mostly off-stage. There are a few skirmishes, but they mainly serve to ping one or other main character with an arrow to create a little 'will they survive?' tension and an opportunity for angst and/or bonding. It got a little repetitive. Some other quibbles: there were several multi-year time jumps, and I quickly lost track of dates and ages. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the Castle and Taarhan, and sometimes I wasn't sure why. There were a few typos and oddities, but not many. I could have done with some foreshadowing of the place where Sild was hidden (if it was there, I missed it). But these are minor criticisms.

What Wallace does well is characters and their interactions, and that's what this book is all about. Where the first part of the trilogy was mostly Caedun, this one focuses on Tiel. Now Tiel was not a particularly inspiring person to start with - he came across to me as a tediously whinging teenager - but in this book he becomes a truly deep and complex character. He grows into his abilities, and learns to live with his past (and future). He still has a temper, is inarticulate and makes stupid mistakes, but he begins at last to show real maturity. It is rare to find this kind of development in a character, where you can understand not only what he is but exactly why, but Wallace pulls this off brilliantly.

I enjoyed this book even better than the first. Despite the world-threatening events going on in the background, the focus was on much more intimate matters - families and how they work, friendship, and fathers and sons. Best line of the book: "I killed the monsters [...]. That's what fathers do." Yes! This is one of those rare moments of perfect rightness. Loved it. So despite the lack of set-piece battles and the like, this is a terrifically readable book. It feels like there's a lot of setup in it, it's true. Yes, we're inching painfully slowly towards the big showdown and yes, much of the book is taken up with putting the important characters where they need to be, but it doesn't matter. I was absorbed every step of the way, loved seeing Tiel come into his own and the pages just kept turning. A good four stars, and let's hope it's not too long before the final part is out.

Review: 'The Hill Bachelors' by William Trevor

This is a collection of short stories set either in the author's native Ireland, or else in England, his later home, with one set in France. He is regarded as a master of the short story, and it's true that each is a little masterpiece of prose, with a skillfully drawn set of characters, an intriguing scenario gradually revealed and a little twist at the end. Each one is a perfect vignette of lives at a moment in time. The stories themselves are often full of pathos, with enough subtleties and undercurrents to intrigue. Some are quite hauntingly memorable, and the Irish ones in particularly have a wonderful resonance of time and place.

And yet... It's not that I disliked these stories, I didn't at all. But a short story is, somehow, a peculiarly artificial form of prose. The twist at the end is, after all, the whole point, so the story is entirely constructed around it, with the aim being to deceive and then, triumphantly, reveal it. It's intended to be clever rather than to tell a story, and personally I would rather have had more depth and development and less cleverness. I can't help feeling: if the author didn't care enough about these characters to give them the space to grow, why should I care about them either?

It's all too easy to see them as disposable products - read, enjoy in the moment and then throw away. But some of them really deserved a broader canvas. 'The Virgin's Gift', for instance, raised more questions than it answered. Readers will have their own views on the nature of the visions of the Virgin Mary, but what exactly was the gift? Was it simply the obvious one, of returning a son to his home? Or did the author intend the more subtle irony of giving back something which had been taken away in the first place? And what would become of the main character after that? And 'The Hill Bachelors' could easily have made a full length novel, or a film. It seems a shame to criticise a short story for being too short, yet several of them felt that way - too much detail crammed in, cluttering up the simplicity of the picture. And occasionally it felt clunky, as if the author was determined to shoehorn in a particular piece of information, relevant or not. Nevertheless, these are superb examples of the art of the short story, for those who enjoy the genre. Four stars.