How is it fair that books like, well, I don’t think I need to name any names, I’m sure we can all think of at least one book that defies all laws of good writing and yet still has a huge fanbase. So how is it that books like that, with their sparkling vampires and their last suppers get printed and reprinted and reprinted again, while excellent books like Sarah Monette’s Melusine go out of print?
I had one hell of a time tracking this book down, let me tell you. If it wasn’t for a particularly enthusiastic discussion about it in one of the Goodreads groups I belong to I probably wouldn’t have bothered. And I would have been the one to miss out there, because this really is a very enjoyable read.
The book is told from two separate first person points of view, brothers Felix and Mildmay. It's not so easy, making multiple first person points of view work well. With third person point of view differentiaiting between characters is easy, because you’re naming them ever couple of lines. But you don’t have that luxery in first person. So many books that try to do this whole alternating first person view points thing fail because each character sounded almost exactly the same. This is not even close to being a problem for Monette. Felix and Mildmay are both incredibly distinct characters. The names at the start of each section were wholly unnessary, it was easy to tell within a single line whose head I was in. It seems like such an obvious thing- make your characters seem like different people. And yet so few authors pull it off as well as Monette did here.
Mildmay grew up as a thief on the streets and is now a cat burgler. His voice is ridiculously conversational and engaging, and I don’t doubt that he will be most reader’s favourite. He’s funny, in a cynical kind of way, and good at what he does. But dispite his coolly competent demenour he’s very self conscious, which was actually one thing I really liked about the book. Because Mildmay and Felix don’t meet until halfway through the book, you see Mildmay as Mildmay sees himself. Ugly and scarred. But then when you eventually see him from Felix’s point of view you realise that this is not the case at all. It was just another example of how skillfully Monette’s employed the dual view points.
In contrast to easy to like Mildmay, there is Felix. Handsome and charming, he’s a high ranking wizard and the king’s brother’s lover. His wit is sharp and biting, and while I liked him from the start I think fewer readers will warm to him. He’s just so snarky to everyone. That is, of course, until he goes completely mad.
Because, yeah, for most of the book Felix is completely fucking insane. A spell, and I won’t into anymore detail than that because of spoilers, leaves him mad and presumed guilty of a heinous crime. Which, again, could have really sucked. But Monette manages to walk a fine line between Felix’s madness and still keeping the reader engaged with the plot. It was actually really cool. Felix starts to see various characters as animals, and I had fun trying to figure out which animal was who. I also liked that on one level it was just Felix raving, but if you looked a little deeper you could start to assemble a picture of what was going on. It took a little effort, but I am certainly ok with putting a little effort into my reading, if it's for the right reasons, (like it was here).
I also really, really loved the world building. Different elements of society use different calanders, and different cities subscribe to wildly different kinds of magic. There was a very European feel to the world and it's history, almost like an alternate Venice. I would have liked to have seen more of the world building than what was in this book, but there are three other books in the series so I’m sure I’ll get my way.
The book isn't perfect, but it's definitely one of the better ones I've read this year. It certainly didn't deserve to be treated so poorly by it's publisher. I definitely recommend trying to find a copy of this one. I think it's still available in digital form, so if you've joined the ranks of the advancing ebook armies you'll have an easier time of it. Otherwise, like me, you'll be hitting up ebay and the like. But it's worth it. I promise.(less)
Growing up I never really gave much to religion. I kind of half heatedly figured that there must be a God, and if I had a problem I’d usually squeeze my eyes shut and pray for a resolution. But then, having lived 20 relatively woe free years, my mother, aunt and grandmother passed away suddenly in the space of a few short months. Suddenly the question of religion seemed rather more important than it had before, and I turned to books (of course) to try and make sense of the belief forming inside of me that, hmm, maybe there is no God?
Dawkins, Hitchens, Mills, I read them all, and I can’t say that they didn’t help me but man, what I wouldn’t give for a time machine to send back to myself a copy of Terry Prachett’s Nation. (Well, possibly I'd work on preventing those deaths that caused all the introspection in the first place, but failing that...) Every person, no matter the age, who has ever struggled questioned the big man in the sky should read this book.
Because at it’s heart that what this book is about; questions. Mau and a shipwrecked white girl are the only survivors on a small island after a terrible tidal waves rips through and, having looked upon the bodies of everyone he ever knew, Mau has some questions. They creep up slowly at first, but before long he’s rejecting the Gods he has spent his whole life believing in. The life of Mau and the life of Megan (that's me!) could not be more different, and yet the way he starts to question the world around him, almost guiltily at first and then with growing confidence, was so familiar it was almost painful to read.
But! Other survivors who eventually reach Mau island (some nice, some decidedly not) still believe in their Gods, and this is what sets Nation apart. Other “atheist” books tend to dismiss if not openly mock those with faith, seeming to suggest that if you believe in God then you’re a bit of an idiot, really. (And then get all hurt when people call atheists arrogant...). In no way does Prachett do this. The characters who do believe in the Gods are treated as sympathetically as Mau.
Because this is not a book about rejecting God, it’s a book about questioning God (and colonialism, but I’m trying to keep these reviews short so we won’t even go into that). Nation is a celebration of curiosity and the importance of science and discovery, and how such things need not be mutually exclusive with the Great Almighty. Believe in God or don’t, either’s fine, Nation says, but don’t just believe blindly because you’ve been told to. I wish I was rich enough to take out billboards across the globe with that message on them, Happy Xmas (War is Over) style.
And of course, it almost goes without saying that in addition to being a deep exploration of life, the universe and everything Nation also displays all the wit and dancing prose for which Prachett is so loved. It is a darker book than the Discworld novels, to be sure. There is humour, and humour galore, but there is a bittersweet undertone to it that the Discworld books rarely touch upon. If you like Discworld you’ll like this one, if you don’t like Discworld (such people exist?) you may well still like this one and, most importantly, if you’re at a point in your life where you’ve got more questions than your head knows what to do with, then you need this one.(less)
There’s a saying about war that gets floated around a lot, something about how it’s made up of long periods of boredom interrupted by short periods of terror. So it’s probably fitting then that the pacing of Old Man’s War seemed to stretch and contract in much the same way. Not that the book was ever boring, mind you. Scalzi does an excellent job of keeping the reader interested, his prose is so clear and lively it practically reads itself. But sometimes it took several chapters to cover a few weeks, and then suddenly months were gone in the space of a few sentences. Chapters were devoted to Perry's first few days off earth, but barely a quarter of that to his first alien encounter, for example. Was this a bad thing? Perhaps not. The lack of pages devoted to all the battles and such Perry was involved in made it seem as though they were insignificant, or at least not noteworthy enough to devote the same level of attention that Perry’s first few wonder filled days in space received. One of the main debates that runs through the book is whether or not the powers that be wage war too lightly, and the way numerous battles zip by support this idea.
Still, I think I would have liked to novel to have been a bit longer. It never felt rushed, exactly, but the quick pace did hinder my ability to really connect with any of the characters outside of Perry. This works against Scalzi, because he tries to pull off what I like to think of as the “Harry Potter Heartbreak” technique. Think back to last Harry Potter book, if you’ve read it (and if not maybe skip a few lines here…) In the final epic battle of epic battley-ness a number of characters die. It happens without fuss, often offscreen, and in a few cases I didn’t even realise such and such was dead until I read closer. At first it made me furious, not because they had died but because their deaths were treated so carelessly. But then I came to realise that it was a comment on how careless war is of life and etc. Because I loved those character so much their offhandedly mentioned deaths gutted me, but also made me really consider what war is. I think Scalzi was going for the same feeling. Characters die left and right in this book, sometimes heroically, sometimes absurdly and sometimes for no reason. But the problem is Scalzi hasn’t given you a chance to really connect with any of them, so each death is met with a shrug. It lacks any kind of emotional punch and is therefore not that effective.
Of course, no matter how many characters get eaten by killer mold or decapitated, there is never any doubt that Perry will be fine. Not because the book is told in the first person, but because Perry is kinda perfect. He solves problems before anyone else, he survives when no one else does, and saves lives when no one else could, he gets promoted like every second page and everyone likes him. He forces grudging smiles from the hardest men, and even though all the green bodied newly young people are physically beautiful, (this is actually very well explained) it is the mostest beautifullest one that wants to bone Perry. He’s one pet lion away from being Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bears.
But still, despite these complaints, Old Man’s War is incredibly easy and fun to read. The prose is clear, and the speculative concepts Scalzi introduces are so easy to grasp that you don’t first realise how complicated these ideas really are. If I read the next part’s of this series (and I suspect I will) it will be to see these ideas and the universe(s) Scalzi houses them in explored more fully, but it wont be for the characters. And that’s what makes this a book I liked instead of a book I really liked. For me characters are the most important thing in a book, and it’s the area where it seems Scalzi is weakest. But if you don’t place as much importance on characters as I do then you’ll probably love this book a hell of a lot more than I did. (less)
Had you told me when I first read Perdido Street station, when I was struggling to get my head around Mieville’s bewildering setting, that I would one day come to find Bas-Lag a welcome and familiar place, well- I just would not have believed you.
But, here we are! After having to get used to the rules of Mievielle’s CultPunk London, and the wholly alien world of Embasseytown, returning to the world of Bas-Lag was nothing short of a relief. And not just Bas-Lag, but New Crobuzon! Iron Council never even approaches the heights of The Scar (come on, few books do) but it does have one thing going for it that The Scar did not: New Crobuzon.
The varied races living uneasily shoulder to shoulder, the grotesque remade, Dog Fenn and the Ribs, the militia, and looming over it all Perdido Street Station itself. New Crobuzon is every bit as surreal and heady here as it was in Perdido Street Station, and I loved the chance to explore the setting further.
There is no simple way to summarize the plot of Iron Council, but this is a Mieville book so surely that isn’t a surprise. One man, Judah Low, becomes (or is possibly possessed by?) some kind of saint. He joins a group of indentured remade and free railway workers as they steal a train (as you do) and flee with it across the wild and dangerous countryside. They are the Iron Council and exist in the minds of New Crobuzons as little more than legend. Except now Judah Low has set out to bring them back and tip the scales in a revolution against the city’s corrupt mayor.
Low is joined by an assorted group of followers. Most notably an angry young man named Cutter, who was the character I found most interesting. Whereas the others are following Judah because they believe in the Iron Coucil, Cutter believes only in Judah. He’s desperately in love with the man, even though the most he ever gets in return in a kind of absent minded affection that’s probably worse than nothing at all.
I found Judah himself to be pretty unlikeable. He’s a deft hand at conjuring and controlling golums, and he does have some pretty bad ass moments, but for all that he constantly comes across as vaguely weak. Where others are actively changing the course of history Judah hangs back just a little, keeps himself just slightly removed, stops himself from committing fully so if things go badly he can still get away. Plus the way he treats and manipulates Cutter left a bad taste in my mouth.
Having said that my favourite part of the book was an extended flashback in the middle told from Low’s point of view that dealt with the birth of Iron Council. This could have been a novel all in itself, and was packed with enough action and emotion to keep me more than happy.
Aside from this whole Iron Coucil business there as another story line featuring a young “revolutionary” (read: terrorist) named Ori. This plotline was interesting enough, but honestly I think it could have been cut completely from the book. I felt like its only purpose was to a provide a kind of “meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon’ element to the narrative, to stop the whole thing from being set in the wilds. But Ori’s actions didn’t have any real effect on the main Iron Council part of the plot, and it just seemed to go nowhere. Well, no, it went somewhere. Just somewhere kind of lame and unsatisfying.
Parts of this book displayed everything I love about Mieville’s world, but unfortunately other sections dragged the whole thing down. I would still recommend it, but if you’ve never read Mieville before maybe start somewhere else.(less)