Friday, 28 February 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Dreamlander' by K M Weiland

It’s such a lovely idea: you fall asleep and your dreams are actually about another world. And just a few special people are Gifted: able to move between the two worlds physically. So this is a portal story, one of those tales with a dull, modern-day section which then shifts in an instant into a far more interesting fantasy world with swords and whatnot. The twist here is that every time the main character falls asleep in the interesting fantasy world – bam, he’s back in the dull modern world.

The fantasy world is not the most complicated ever. The map gives it away. There are a few rivers and hills, a sprinkling of cities, a castle and – erm, that’s about it. And no, dropping in phrases like ‘a white fillet of summerton and a peeled sopple floating in its bowl of sweet craniss wine’ doesn’t give it a more authentic depth. However, it does have a slightly steampunk air, with pistols and a steam-powered cable-car for long distance travel, which is quite cool. But (phew!) there are still swords and horse-riding soldiers who gallop into battle. So that’s all right then. Sadly, the modern world is every bit as dull as it usually is.

So here’s the plot. Every once in a while, a Gifted turns up who can cross freely between the two worlds. The last one was a total disaster, so when Chris finds himself the latest Gifted, he’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. The king just wants him to keep out of the way of the coming war. The religious fanatics want to use him as an excuse for trouble. The Searcher, the king’s daughter Alarra, has unresolved issues because of her failure to manage the previous Gifted. And as soon as he arrives in parallel world Lael, Chris is manipulated into bringing war-mongering Mactalde across from the modern world, thereby creating a tear in the space-time continuum. Or something. Something bad, anyway, since it makes the weather deteriorate.

The characters are the usual thing. Feisty independent princess. Check. Brave but sensitive manly type. Check. Stalwart, fiercely loyal old retainer. Check. Heroic but tormented warrior-type. Check. Evil villain. Oh yes. Amusing and/or irritating sidekicks. Check. Check. Check. There’s also a talking winged beast of some sort, who is supposed to keep the important characters informed but actually withholds vital information for his own (presumably plot-related) reasons. Which is terribly convenient.

Now, the author has done a good job of giving all the characters strong background stories, but this does rather substitute for actual characterisation. Stripping away the layers of guilt and fear and anger and betrayal around them leaves not much more than the bald stereotypes mentioned above. And then they will angst about it endlessly. I’m not a big fan of angsty characters, and, to be honest, I got a bit cross with them here. Chris, for instance, is weighed down with guilt because he brought Mactalde back, but since no one told him the truth, how was he supposed to know? And Allara is weighed down with guilt because she failed with the previous Gifted. Ye gods, she was nine years old at the time, being advised by a winged beastie who makes the Sphinx look like a model of clarity. Guys, it wasn’t your fault, OK?

I confess to having problems with the logic behind the basic premise. Yes, I know, magic... duh. But still, it should make some sort of sense. So we have these dual worlds, each one the dream world of the other. And the same people exist in both worlds. They do different jobs, but they’re the same people. You can die in one but your doppelganger lives on. So that boggled my mind right away. Then there’s the whole dreams business. You fall asleep in one and you wake up in the other? But... but... most people don’t sleep more than eight or so hours a day, so you get eight hours’ sleep in one world, eight hours in the other and... what happens to the other eight? OK, so I may be overthinking this, and to be fair Chris does seem to sleep a lot, in one world or the other, so I guess it works out.

A more serious problem is that the characters do really stupid things. I’ve already mentioned that Chris was manipulated into bringing Mactalde back, and I don’t totally blame him for that, but when some people are saying, ‘Yes, yes, do it, it’ll totally fix everything” and others are saying, “This is a really, really bad idea”, it might be smart to ask a few more questions, don’t you think? And thereafter the guy is constantly leaping into his horse or one of the cool skycar thingies to rush into battle or rescue people who’ve been given up for dead. In fact, the whole bang lot of them are prone to the horse-leaping and rushing and rescuing thing, including the king’s entire family. Well, it shifts the plot along, I suppose. But then the guy who betrayed them sends a message that he has some useful information, but Chris has meet him alone... I mean really, who is stupid enough to do that? Well, Chris, apparently. Doh.

Now if all this sounds as if I didn’t like the book, actually, I did, on the whole. It was entertaining and readable in a lightweight way, and for a bit of easily-digested fluff it’s very effective. As long as you don’t think too hard about it, it all works very well. By the middle of the book, it had settled down into a nicely paced, if over dramatic, tale. Latterly it degenerated into one of those we’re-all-doomed-we’re-saved!-oh-no-we’re-all-doomed see-saws, with our heroes implausibly surviving every tricky moment while the baddies are constantly two steps ahead. Which was, in places, eye-rollingly silly. But then came the ending, one of those unexpected moments when the author takes the mature, difficult, but obviously logical road. I love it when that happens. So kudos to the author, and extra brownie points. Recommended for anyone who likes relentless action and is able to switch off the but-but-why? side of their brain. Three stars.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Fiction Review: 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy

My book group has a sadistic streak. They recommend chick lit and Booker prize winners and other deeply worthy stuff, and turn their noses up at perfectly good fantasy. Why? I can’t understand it. ‘Wolf Hall’ would have been so much better with dragons in it (everything’s better with dragons). And here’s another of their good ideas: let’s do a proper classic. Now, I’d struggled with Hardy at school, but that was a long time ago. Surely it will be better now, with my greater maturity. So here’s the opening paragraph and a bit:

“One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.

The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular. He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waistcoat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas....”

Right. This is going to need a lot of wine.

Now, the language is (not surprisingly) old-fashioned, since it was written in 1886. It’s not that difficult to follow, but it isn’t as readable as Jane Austen, who wrote more than half a century earlier. It’s quite dull, however, for a great deal of it is focused on turgid descriptions of the scenery. I know Hardy is famous for his poetic descriptions, but it’s that heavy mid-Victorian poetry that’s very much an acquired taste. And I haven’t acquired it.

Beneath the verbiage, there’s an interesting plot going on. A man gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife and child to a passing sailor for five guineas. Twenty years later, when he’s the eponymous mayor, the wife and daughter return. In the meantime, the man has had a liaison with another woman and promised to marry her, and when the wife dies she, too, turns up. To make the romantic entanglements complete, there’s a bright young Scotsman who becomes the mayor’s protégé, then falls out with him, and attracts both the daughter and the mistress. And that’s enough plot.

There are enough complications there to keep the average soap opera going for years. The most appealing aspect, to me, is that all the characters are well-meaning and trying very hard to do the right thing. They may make mistakes, but they do everything they can to correct them. The mayor agrees at once to court and re-marry his original wife. The wife agrees to it. The daughter, when she finds out the truth, goes along with it. The mistress agrees that’s the best thing to do. There are no villains here.

On the minus side, a great deal depends on coincidence. Important information is overheard. Secret letters are found. Characters fortuitously bump into other characters. Characters believed to be dead miraculously reappear. This all becomes terribly silly and quite incredible. Then there are the hordes of comedic yokels, wheeled out for a bit of local colour and stupidity from time to time. Combined with the heavy prose, this all became a bit much, and I gave it up at the 50% point. But the nice thing about dead authors is that their books are described in detail on Wikipedia, so I could read the entire plot without feeling I’ve missed anything (other than the comedic yokels, of course). One star for a DNF.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Splintered Eye' by H Anthe Davis

How do you follow off-the-scale awesomeness? There’s only one way – with a shed-load more awesomeness, that’s how, with a dollop of awesome sauce on top. I love this series. After ‘The Light of Kerrindryr’s tight focus on Guardian-carrying Cob and his escape from slavery, this time the camera pans back a little to show the devious machinations at the heart of the empire. And there’s a quest! Yay for quests!

I raved about ‘The Light of Kerrindryr’, rating it my second favourite read of 2013, but that always makes me nervous about reading the follow-on. I needn’t have worried. The author’s trademark elegant writing style, vivid visual imagery and endlessly inventive imagination are all present and correct. And the characters come to life in ways that many popular writers could only envy. Cob is still his grumpy self, but he handles his anger-management issues better here as he gradually comes to terms with the Guardian (and pals) lurking inside him. Cob in full-on Guardian mode is still an awe-inspiring, if slightly worrying, sight. But Cob is no longer alone. He has collected possibly the most mismatched group of characters ever seen in fantasy – a wolf shape-shifter, a wraith, a religious warrior, a shadowlander and – well, whatever Dasira is.

And Cob finally gets him a little loving. Not the world’s most earth-shattering romance, perhaps, and I wonder slightly at the lady’s motives, but it’s still nice to see Cob growing up a little and enjoying himself. I would have liked a little more detail of the event itself, because such an important moment in a character’s life justifies some exploration, but that’s just me. The fade-to-black made it feel more perfunctory than perhaps it would have been for Cob.

Of the other characters, I loved Arik the wolf-man, who acts like an excitable puppy around Cob. Even when he’s in human form, the author never lets us forget his wolfish side, so his movements, his thoughts, the scents he’s constantly aware of are all completely animal-like. Fiora the religious warrior-babe is less likeable, to me, because I was never completely convinced that Cob’s welfare was her sole objective. But I have to admit that she’s a handy girl to have at your side in battle, and being able to summon godly power at will is a useful ability.

All the rest of the vast array of characters populating these lands are complex, fully rounded personalities, all with their own agendas – boy, do they have agendas. The political nuances are such that the reader can never be totally sure who is on which side, or (more likely) playing both sides against the middle. And who would have guessed that seemingly out-and-out villains like Kelturin and Enkhaelen could be made so distressingly sympathetic? My heart bled for both of them. For the ultimate in complicated motivations, there is Dasira, a character with a jaw-dropping history. It’s probably perverse of me, but I was half-hoping that Cob’s romantic tendencies would lean that way, because – well, just because. Maybe as well they didn’t.

The author has one habit which is almost unavoidable in a series as epic as this, namely, switching point of view frequently. I hate the Game of Thrones technique of assigning point of view by chapter; there’s nothing more dispiriting than finishing a Tyrion chapter and turning the page to find it’s Catelyn next. Fortunately, here the point of view sections are as long or short as they need to be, and sometimes a character is wheeled on briefly just to reveal a key piece of information. This strategy makes the transitions as painless as is humanly possible, and never disrupts the flow of the story. I found, too, that there was no equivalent of Catelyn, a character who made my heart sink every time she appeared. All the characters here are interesting enough to carry their own sections effortlessly.

If you like your world-building industrial strength, this is the series for you. There are countries, races, religious systems, ecologies, languages – everything worked out to the last decimal place. Magic? Oh, yes, loads of it. Now I don’t pretend for one moment to have followed all the subtleties, but I was never out of my depth, either. There were no more than a couple of places where I didn’t get a reference. Mostly everything was beautifully clear or else (like some of the details of dress and so on) added colour without slowing things down. I never felt the need to take notes to keep up, never had to struggle to remember what happened in the last book, never got distracted by extraneous side-issues. This world always felt completely real, and not merely a sketched-in backdrop for the action.

And what action it is. There is a lot going on in this book, not just with Cob and his disparate band, but in the imperial army, amongst the wraithy-types, and (oh joy!) at the imperial palace, which is weirder than I’d have believed possible. And then there’s the Emperor. No wonder there are some peculiar things afoot in the empire. As with the first book, there are also sequences that are maybe dreams or hallucinations or other states of not-realness, or perhaps not-of-this-worldness. This elision between real and ‘other’ is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.

There’s a touch of middle-book-itis in some aspects of the story. Iskaen and Rian are not much more than tokens, promises of some wonderful clashes to come (and Rian’s one of my favourite characters, who surely deserves his own spin-off series). Sarovy’s role is modest in this book, which is a slight disappointment to me, as he’s another favourite, with his ultra-strict and unquestioning adherence to the rules. Nevertheless, they still get scenes of unforgettable power. The moment when Sarovy’s ‘specialists’ reveal their true natures is one that will stay with me for a long time.

And this is, ultimately, the author’s greatest strength. It’s not just the amazing world-building or the complex and layered characters or even the plot that sweeps me off my feet. It’s these moments of vividly-drawn images – Kelturin before the Emperor, the battle at the crystal tower, the escape from the blood-red plant-life of Haaraka, Cob in full-on not-really-human mode powering through the wintry landscape, Enkhaelen painstakingly mending bodies, Cob learning to fight, Cob (again) at Enkhaelen’s house. It’s these powerful moments, balancing on the edge between fantasy and a kind of spine-chilling horror, that lift the book way above the average fantasy saga. And if you want layers of meaning, about reality and dreams and truth... that’s all there too.

I don’t often recommend books. Mostly I say: here’s what worked for me, and here’s what didn’t, and you can decide for yourself. But this is a book, or indeed a series, that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get. It should be on bestseller lists and winning awards. It should have a horde of excitable fans lovingly compiling Wikis, wearing cosplay antlers and endlessly debating the nuanced differences between airahenes and haelhenes. So just go out and buy it, OK? It’s piking awesome. Five stars.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Sci-Fi Review: 'The End Specialist' by Drew Magary

The best speculative fiction takes a what-if? scenario and then explores the possible consequences of that idea. This book certainly does that. It proposes that a cure for aging is found, a process which stops the body's natural senescence so that a person using it remains forever at the same physical age. They may still die of disease or violence or accident, but the body won't age.

The book attempts to follow the progress of societies post-cure by means of a journal, a time-honoured technique which can work quite well. Here, however, the author uses it to shoehorn in every little bit of speculation about the consequences that he can think of, sometimes in only a few lines, bullet-point style. To say that this makes the book disjointed would be an understatement. It would have been far better, I feel, to focus more tightly on the main character, John, and make it truly personal. Taking a chapter to describe the problems of a character in China, where the cure was banned, based tenuously on the idea that John once knew him, doesn't serve to connect the reader with those problems.

The pseudo-journal follows John's life as society gradually adapts (or rather, fails to adapt) to increasing numbers of people who don't grow old and die. The author tries to demonstrate the various approaches taken by individuals and governments, but it really covers too much ground to make an interesting story. Some aspects worked well, for instance, the changes in technology are never explained, they simply pop up in references to plug-ins and WEPS, used as if the reader is perfectly familiar with them. It became fun trying to work them out. Other aspects, like an outbreak of 'sheep flu' are described in detail, as in a news report, and this was more tedious.

For anyone who likes to watch the apocalypse unfolding, slowly, over several generations, this book might do the trick. It's been nominated for a number of awards so clearly its unusual storytelling technique is appreciated in critical quarters. For me, though, it failed at the most basic level, in not giving me any characters I could connect with, and breaking the story into dozens of disjointed chunks. Two stars.

Fiction Review: 'Stonemouth' by Iain Banks

This is one of those odd books that I found enjoyable to read at the time, but when I put it down, I lapsed into so-what? apathy. The premise is a fairly trite one. A mid-twenties man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and spends the time reminiscing about growing up, being astonished at the changes that have taken place and equally astonished at the things that remain unchanged, and resolving a few loose ends from his departure five years before. So far, so ho-hum. The twist here is that the setting is a small town set in the northeast of Scotland, ruled in relative calm by two gangster families, and our hero was run out of town after almost marrying the daughter of one family.

The setting was one of the attractions for me. I live less than two hours' drive from the supposed location of the town of Stonemouth, and many of the descriptions of the beaches, forests and streets rang very true. Banks' descriptive prose is wonderfully lyrical, and captured the atmosphere beautifully. It was a little disconcerting that a major road bridge played a prominent role in the story; there are so few of those up here, that I kept visualising it as one of the known bridges - the Kessock bridge was my personal mental image - which pulled the book's geography out of alignment, as if the map was stretched out of true.

The childhood reminiscences worked less well. Some were funny and some were tragic but none of them really tore at my heart as perhaps they should have done. Some of main character Stewart's friends were, frankly, too stupid for words. The book interleaves the present-day events with vignettes from the past in order to keep hidden a couple of mysteries: what Stewart did to get him run out of town, and what really happened to the brother of his almost-wife? These were enough to keep me turning the pages, so they worked as intended, but frankly the revelations weren't particularly mind-blowing.

Stewart himself is rather a nothing character. He seems fairly blank, rarely expressing any emotion other than fear, although his continuing affection for almost-wife Ellie is rather touching. Of the others, Ferg the sardonic bisexual is far and away the most interesting. I'd have been happy reading an entire book about him, actually. The rest were either caricatures (Ellie's thuggish brothers, the stupid friends) or nonentities (like Ellie herself, drifting aimlessly through life), although Ellie's younger sister Grier probably rates a mention as having slightly more personality.

The final chapters are melodramatic, which seems to be obligatory these days, and the story then tailspins off into an implausible resolution for the main characters. The plot also fails one of my favourite tests: could most of the plot be resolved if the principals simply sat down and talked everything through? In this case, it was a puzzle to me why Ellie, in particular, didn't say to her family: I'll decide my own future, thank you very much. As she does, in fact, later on. The plot hinges on her being the sort of person who allows herself to be pushed around, but only until the plot requires her to push back. So that was a big fail, as far as I'm concerned. Three stars.