Re-rated. Was too generous in my first review. With hindsight it's def a 1 star read and probably one of the worst books I've ever read.
I outlined my...moreRe-rated. Was too generous in my first review. With hindsight it's def a 1 star read and probably one of the worst books I've ever read.
I outlined my initial thoughts to this book in my blog straight after I finished but I think it's time for a proper review now that I've put some distance between myself and the book.
Now let me start off by saying that I was not the target audience for this book, I could not be any less the target audience for this book if I suddenly sprouted chest hair and grew a penis. Despite this though I can see why other people liked, even loved, it - but it just wasn't for me. I read it because the concept sounded interesting and becaue my best friend picked it out for our book group read.
Other reviewers have summarised my thoughts far better than I ever could but it basically boils down to loving the concept but being hudely dissapointed with the execution. There were so many interesting questions and themes that could have been explored that were barely touched on only to get dismissed in favour of stressing once more how 'romantic'the whole messed-up sittuation was and how perfect Henry and Clare were for each other.
And maybe Henry and Claire were perfect for each other - they certainly had totally identical narrative voices and a similar self-absorbed nature that prevented them from caring about anyone else or feel anything remotely resembling guilt or shame when they did horrible things to those they purported to care about. Basically I'm saying the characterisation was poor and that neither were likable. Neither character ever seemed to develop past initial character drafting stage - appearance, backstory, favourite bands...Check. Personality? Not so much. Henry tells us how wonderful Clare's personality is, Clare tells us how wonderful Henry's is and neither ever shows any of their own.
In fact the whole book seems to rely on 'tell, don't show'. Henry and Clare love each other, lets not question why (she loves him because he pretty much groomed her to, he loves her because... she's fit, has red hair, and can keep up with him sexually better than any woman in the past? That's all I could come up with when I tried to stop and really think about it). We're told Henry and Gomez will become best friends in the future, then it is the future an they're best friends, but nothing in their actions show that they even like each other. We're told Henry was a horrible person before he met Clare but, despite the time travel thing being the perfect way to show it, we never see that. We're told that he changes because of Clare but his narrative voice and personality don't, they remain constant throughout. By the end of the book the only change we've seen him go though on the page is getting a haircut.
Although these are pretty big writing criticisms I think, to be honest, the book could have been improved hugely by a better and more ruthless editor. At 519 pages the book is simply too long for the story it's trying to tell. It could have been cut a good 200 pages and been vastly improved for it. The first half is just padded with needless scenes like Henry being awesome at pool or Henry impressing his awesomeness on a couple of easily impressed teenagers by listing off a reel of punk bands, that barely anything of interest actually happens. Niffenegger is obviously going for a book in two acts - first 'light fluffy' then 'bleak and miserable'. The problem was that by the time I reached the hard hitting stuff I was already bored with the characters that I couldn't care less about what horrible things started to happen to them in the second half. And boy did a lot of drama start happening, I won't spoil anything specific but instead of breaking down in tears I was rolling my eyes by the end of the book. By making the first half so long and full of inconsiquential nothingness any emotions that should have been triggered by the tragedies in the second half just didn't happen. Maybe if the characterisation had been beeter I would have cared.
2 stars 1 star. Poor characterisation, poor editing, and simply not my type of thing. I still say that the concept is brilliant though, it's just a shame it was used to tell such an insipid and irritating love story rather than being properly explored. Totally overated.(less)
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And f...more 5 stars
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And fuck me, if I don’t completely love it. Favourite book of 2012 by a huge margin. I can’t remember what made me pick this book up in the shop – probably the gorgeous cover and the fact the pages are edged in the same blue as the cover design (I’m a sucker for a pretty book) – but I am really glad I did. This is the reason I persist on ‘wasting my money’ impulse buying interesting looking books that I’ve never even heard of before; you might pick up a few duds but occasionally you stumble across something glorious that you’d never have been led to otherwise.
And now I’m left in the awkward position of trying to write a review for a book I totally adored. I’ve heard other people saying reviewing books you loved is harder than books you hated and I never really believed them – but it is. Whilst I loved this book it probably isn’t for everybody – in fact I’m sure it isn’t. And I know from experience that the quickest way you can get someone to dislike a book and notice its flaws is to build up their expectations by raving about it before they’ve read it… Oh welll…here goes…
We, The Drowned is a hard book to describe; at the surface level it’s just ‘the lives and adventures of the inhabitants of a Danish port town over a hundred years’ but that’s not really what it’s about. I tried describing it to my dad as ‘a Danish One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the magical realism and about sailors instead of a gigantic Latin American family’ but that description strips One Hundred Years of Solitude of its key features and does both books a disservice. Both are brilliant books, both deal with the history of a place by telling the story of the people who lived there over multiple generations – but apart from that they’re completely different beasts and liking/hating one will not mean you have the same opinions about the other.
So I’ll try again… We, the Drowned is a massive book, 690 pages spanning 100 years and 3/4 (depending on your opinion of Klara) central characters. I agree with another reviewer that the story, though divided into four parts actually feels more like three different books that run into each other:
The first part was all about Laurids Madsen the man ‘who went up to heaven and came down thanks to his boots’, who starts off as a daredevil prankster but comes back from war with Germany with what would now be diagnosed as post traumatic stress. And it’s no wonder; the violence in the book is brutal and him and his companions are sailors, not soldiers. Combat on a sailing ship isn’t the bloodless carnage of something like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s bloody and nasty; people soil themselves and go down screaming and sobbing like children, if someone gets a cannon shot to the head they don’t comically pick their skull back up and get on, their whole face is blown off. If they’re really unlucky they’ll survive it and go home to a family that doesn’t recognise them and doesn’t want to because it would mean acknowledging the person they loved before the war no longer exists. I haven’t read much stuff set on sailing ships beyond the odd Robert Louis Stevenson, but the battle seemed very real to me. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with description and purple prose but I could vividly see and imagine the whole thing. That said, I don’t know how well it measures up to a Hornblower or Master and Commander I’ll add them to my reading list.
Since it’s on the blurb it’s no spoiler to say that Laurids leaves Marstal soon afterwards, and the majority of this part is about his son Albert growing up without him and his later quest to find his father as soon as he’s old enough to go to sea. It’s old-fashioned adventure on the high seas stuff – shrunken heads, murders, cannibals, pearls, pokey little bars, brutal first mates, and ineffectual captains. But between the sailing and adventure there’s Marstal. Marstal is as much of a character as any of the central characters, maybe even more, not only does it ground all the characters into some sort of context but it grows and changes throughout the novel. In a stroke of genius all the Marstal scenes, or scenes where there are a lot of Marstalers present are told in the first person plural ‘we’. This ‘we’ is never acknowledged as a named character, there is no one narrator, but is the collective consciousness of the town itself: for Lauids this ‘we’ was the Marstal sailors who had been recruited for war alongside him, for Albert it is his peers, the Marstal schoolboys. I’ll admit it confused me at first but I grew to love it very quickly, it created a sort of understanding of the town and its people and a sense of inclusion that third person would simply have been too impersonal to portray. Without it the Marstal bits might have seemed like the ‘boring’ parts between adventures but, if anything, I almost came to love them more by the end of the book.
Which is good because the next portion of the book is entirely set there. After the Treasure Island-like adventures of his youth the book skips straight on to Albert as an old man living in Marstal. Although told in the ‘we’ it is really from Albert’s eyes that we see the approach and then the horrors of World War I and the effect it has on the town. And it’s chilling. As a history student, it’s embarrassing to admit but I’d never really looked at WWI from the standpoint of a neutral country and, though I’ve been taught over and over again about the horrors of the trenches, somehow no one ever mentions the war at sea and the sinking of ships. Here the trenches are absent, the suffering of the front lines barely noted, even the losses at sea are distant from the lives of people on the land – life goes on as normal. But, through Albert, we hear about the Marstal ships being shot down and sunk by players in a war they were not even part of. It’s a beautiful and depressing portrayal of war and the effect it has on people and places. As well as the war this part of the book is about growing old – the age of sail is all but dead and the world Albert knew has changed almost beyond recognition. Watching Albert come to grips with this, and the ways in which he deals with his lessening importance within the town is just as powerful, in its way, as the depiction of the distant war.
The third part takes us back to the sea with Knud Erik, a fatherless boy Albert mentored as a child, and his mother Klara. Knud Erik wants nothing more than to be a sailor like both Albert and his father. Klara, meanwhile hates the sea for taking her husband, and so many others, and leaving the women of Marstal in a constant state of grief and uncertainty. She’s the first major female character in the book, and I could take a lot of issues with her but, though she claims to speak for ‘the women’, in the end she’s just about well enough developed that she’s only really speaking for herself, something that becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. I’m still not sure what I think of her, I certainly understand her, and I appreciate her growing into a strong woman who doesn’t use sex as a tool buuut…well, there’s just something not entirely likable about her. Despite the tension it causes, Knud Erik, does of course become a sailor. First sailing on sailing ships as a teenager; having adventures reminiscent of his mentor Albert’s – cruel first mates, vicious storms, murder at sea, icebergs. Then, once the age of the sailing ship is truly over, on steam and then mechanical ships, serving on the allied merchant convoys of World War II.
This again was an entirely different perspective on the War than anything I’d ever read about it before. What the ships docked in London did during air raids is something I’d never really thought about. Nor the horrors of the ‘keep going, don’t stop to rescue anyone’ order given to convoys when one of their number got struck by a u-boat. It gave me a new appreciation for the men who risked their lives, without lifting weapons, to help in the war effort.
All in all a brilliant book – I haven’t mentioned half of the bits I would want to talk about for fear of spoilers. It’s bleak and depressing and certainly not for everyone, but I loved it. Some bits were predictable – I knew what would happen to Karo the moment he appeared, same with the ‘free men’ in the hold and several other characters, but it didn’t seem ‘predictable’ so much as ‘inevitable, given how the characters around them are sketched’ and, instead of rolling my eyes when it happened I was gripped and unable to tear myself away from my book as I watching the build up and then the fall out. Other bits weren’t so predictable; the first ‘romance’ especially left me reeling with an ‘I should have expected that but I really didn't’.
It had its flaws of course – sometimes characters we’d been introduced to reappeared in unlikely places – but nothing too unforgivable. There wasn’t much chance for female characters to shine and the one that did appear as a sailor late in the book I was unconvinced by, but I think that’s the nature of the setting – women weren’t given chances to shine. The adventures were, for the most part, gripping and the Marstal parts were beautiful and really gave a sense of the community there beyond just the main few characters – it wasn’t just ‘main character, his immediate family, and some other people to bulk up the population count’ who lived there – the town was a living breathing character in itself. The use of ‘we’ for the parts set in Marstal worked incredibly well, and wasn’t something I’d really seen done before. The perspectives through which both World War I and II were told were unusual but even more powerful for that.
All in all I just kinda loved it and will be on the lookout for anything else written by Carsten Jensen from now on.(less)
Looks like it’s unpopular literary opinions time! And as a self-proclaimed lover of gothic fiction and a massive fan of ghost stories this is g...more 3 Stars
Looks like it’s unpopular literary opinions time! And as a self-proclaimed lover of gothic fiction and a massive fan of ghost stories this is going to be even more blasphemous. So here goes: I don’t think The Turn of the Screw is very good. I didn’t find it scary, I didn’t find it exciting, I didn’t find it atmospheric or tense or any of those other descriptions people use for this book and I didn’t find it either surprising or thought-provoking. After all the hype surrounding this novella, all the praise for Henry James as a master of the ghost story, I’m afraid I rather found myself feeling supremely underwhelmed by it. That’s not to say I thought it was ‘bad’ or that I actively ‘disliked’ it – it was certainly interesting to read it knowing how much of a classic it is and how well discussed certain aspects of it are, but as a story it did pretty much nothing for me and left me feeling, if anything, rather neutral. I got on a little better with the second, much lesser known, story in this book, Owen Wingrave. But neither story, I would say, are ‘among the finest examples of the genre’.
The Turn of the Screw, famously, tells the story of a governess who believes the children in her care are being corrupted by evil spirits and the efforts she goes to protect them. Equally, if not more, famous is the critical debate surrounding the governess’s own sanity. Is she just imagining the ghosts? Are they real? Are they merely representations of her own sexual frustration? Blah blah sexist-freudian-wank blah. The actual story when you get down to it, however, is a pretty simple piece of genre writing and was viewed as such for a long time after it was published. I, personally, don’t think that there’s any doubt the ghosts do exist – the governess describes the ghost of a man she’s never met too well for that. The problem though is that I also have no doubts that (whether James intended it or not) the governess herself is a deeply unhinged individual with an obsessive and paranoid personality, who latches onto first impressions and performs some of the most astounding logical gymnastics to reach the conclusions that she does. As such, although I believe that the ghosts in the book are real I have absolutely no reason to believe that they are evil. This interpretation (and it is only my interpretation) makes it less a terrifyingly tense story about whether the spirits will succeed in corrupting the children and more a gothic comedy of errors - ‘lets watch how the governess leaps to ridiculous assumptions, fucks everything up, and ruins everyone’s lives’ – or at least that’s how it felt reading it.
The children, I think, I was meant to find creepy. I didn’t. I found the governess’s instant ‘they’re such perfect angelic little cherubs!’ attitude worrying – it’s a deeply unhealthy attitude for anyone working with children to have – but the children themselves simply weren’t scary. Miles was weird and he spoke like a grandad, but it was more irritating than sinister. He never creeped me out but I did keep thinking that his dialogue was better suited to somebody wearing velvet slippers and smoking a pipe. (Sidenote: any woman who allows herself to be refered to as ‘my dear’ by a ten-year-old will get no sympathy from me ever). Of course a massive part of while the adult-child relationships didn’t work for me is because of the values and expectations in the time this was written and that, since The Turn of the Screw, creepy children have become rather a staple of the horror genre. By my modern standards Miles doesn’t read as normal but he was hardly creepy enough to be creepy; he just came off as a child written by somebody who couldn’t write children (unfair, I know, and almost certainly untrue, but that’s how he came across). So with neither the ghosts or the creepy children providing me with scares I was left with an awkward little story written by an unreliable narrator whose writing style I didn’t particularly like.
As a result although I know that this is hugely influential story and that many people love it, and find it absolutely tense and atmospheric and everything the blurb claims, I just failed to click with it on every level. It was ‘interesting’, I suppose, and I’m sure I could have some wonderful debates about the story – but I would enjoy them much more than I enjoyed the actual reading of it.
Owen Wingrave I much prefered. It’s a lot less of a ghost story – the supernatural element being more of a deus ex machina than anything else – and it’s certainly not a scary ghost story, but I felt a lot more invested and interested in the characters than I did in The Turn of the Screw, probably because they felt more realistic. Essentially though it’s an anti-military, anti-violence fable. Owen Wingrave, the sole male descendent of a deeply military family decides to quit the army after deciding that war is a repugnant and needless activity that he wants no part of. His family and his implied love interest disapprove and aspersions are made against his bravery. Conveniently enough for everybody involved though there’s a haunted room in the house where not even the bravest soldiers of the family have dared spend a night! It’s all a bit neat and convenient and the ghost story element of it really is just a slightly clumsy tool for the moral of the tale, which could probably have been delivered better with a more mundane example of bravery (there are plenty of ways for a pacifist to prove bravery or ‘worth’ that don’t involve ghosts). The ending is rather abrupt too but it’s a nice little story none the less.
Over all though my experience with this book wasn’t at all what I’d hoped. I think I probably expected a bit much from it, but even without those disappointed expectations I don’t think I’d ever class either of these two stories as particularly great examples of the ghost story genre – the master of which I’d say is actually M.R. James.(less)
I love love love this series but I really don’t think I’ll ever be able to give any of the individual books five stars. A Storm of Swords was...more4.5 Stars
I love love love this series but I really don’t think I’ll ever be able to give any of the individual books five stars. A Storm of Swords was a huge improvement on A Clash of Kings but, like the previous book, the writing sometimes grated and it lacks a defined plot. Of course, the later is simply the nature of all epic fantasy series – the middle books aren’t intended to be cohesive stand-alone stories, they’re about moving the pieces around, getting the characters in position for the next book and setting up new plot threads – and it’s something this book does exceptionally well, so it probably comes as close to a five star book as this series is ever going to give me.
It might lack the narrative drive which the first book had in the form of Ned’s quest to uncover Jon Arryn’s murder, the characters might be scattered all over Westeros and beyond, but Martin does an excellent job of moving all the competing storylines forward and ending the book with every point of view character in a really interesting place. This is the book that is often lauded by fans as the ‘best of the series’, and I can see why. A lot happens in this book – like seriously, a lot. And not just small things, huge, game changing ‘woaaaah!’ things.
The writing, I’m not going to lie, is still not great. The prologue, in fact, was an abysmal mess of terrible fantasy writing and poorly sketched stereotypical cartoonish villains (there’s the ugly cunning one and the big childish one who takes orders but is really a gentle puppydog deep down). But once I got past that and onto the characters I actually cared about from previous books it improved vastly. The tables have turned since A Clash of Kings and fewer point of view characters are in positions of power and luxury, so the ridiculous lists of foods, jewels, and clothing have been mercifully reduced. They still appear on occasion, but it’s not every single Tyrion chapter anymore. There’s still the odd phrase Martin is inordinately in love with such as ‘in his cups’ and Ygrette’s catchphrase of ‘you know nothing, Jon Snow’ but, for the most part, the writing, like the plot, is way less waffly and repetitive and much better than it was in the previous book.
But onto storyline and characters! A Storm of Swords adds in two new point of view characters, both of whom I really enjoyed: Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly. Jaime was one of the main villains in the first book, so it’s great to see things from his side and, for a would-be child murderer, he’s a very fun character. Not necessarily sympathetic, at least not in everything, but he’s amusingly arrogant and provides a much-needed voice of reason against those characters who keep calling him ‘Kingslayer’ as if killing a crazy monarch who routinely burnt people to death for fun was a bad thing. And Sam provides another voice on the wall and amongst the black brothers while Jon’s away.
Of the returning characters Jon and Tyrion probably get the most interesting storylines with Jon off adventuring beyond the wall, playing the turncoat to the Wildlings and trying to inform his brothers of their invasion plan, while Tyrion remains the main eyes and ears for the constant backstabbing politics in King’s landing. Now I’m probably almost alone in this but I don’t like Tyrion very much. His chapters are definitely among the most interesting but that’s because of his position, not because I find him very interesting himself. He’s neither as clever or funny as either he or the people who love him seem to think and he always, always, seems to repeat things repetitively in ways that gradually get me more irritated. Last book it was ‘I’m in love with a whore’ or variations of, which got repeated ad nauseam. This book it’s ‘my sister tried to kill me’/'my sister is evil’, after about the fifth time it’s mentioned in his introductory chapter I kinda got the point. Dany is also finally doing something interesting! Unfortunately she’s still waaaaay oversexualised, but she is doing something – which is a major improvement on the last book.
For me though, it’s all about the Stark kids. Arya is still bumbling around running into one nasty character after another, creating a kill-list that’s a mile long, and providing the ‘what normal people make of all the civil war’ perspective. But even there there’s also some real plot movement for her in this book, even if it isn’t in the way she wanted. She’s one of my absolute favourite characters and the ending left me intrigued as to what will happen to her next. Sansa continues to grow on me as well. Like many people, I have to confess to finding her irritating in the first book, but with every shit thing that happens to her and the way she deals with it I end up liking her more and more. She’s way up in my favourites at this stage and I really hope things get better for her soon. Poor Bran was probably the most shortchanged of all the characters, getting the shortest and most simple storyline in this book – but the promise of a very important part to play in later books, so I guess it balances out.
And to be honest, I can’t really say much more about the plot and events without worrying about spoilers, so I won’t. I was spoiled myself on one of the big plot points and it ended up being a huge anticlimax, which was disappointing, but there were many, many other scenes which took me completely by surprise and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil for others. What I will say is that it’s miles better than A Clash of Kings (which I enjoyed), the overarching plot progresses a hell of a lot and questions from the first book (who tried to assassinate Bran? What happened to Jon Arryn? Where did the guy who was meant to kill Gregor Clegane go?) are finally answered. It also contains some of the most memorable scenes in the whole series so far, and all the characters end the story in a very different place from where they started out. The ending alone was just…brilliant.(less)
Since this pops up in people's newsfeeds and I talk about things that happened in books 1-3 I am going to put the whole thing in spoiler tags...more 3.5 Stars
Since this pops up in people's newsfeeds and I talk about things that happened in books 1-3 I am going to put the whole thing in spoiler tags. Shouldn't be any real spoilers for the book itself though.
(view spoiler)[ So I caved in and gave up on reading each book just before the corresponding TV series started. It was working well for me but eventually I got fed up of people who thought they were being subtle spoiling big events: ‘ooooh, I don’t want to ruin anything but wait til you get to the Red Wedding!’ Fuck off. I mean seriously, stop it, it’s not subtle and mysterious. Anybody with a brain can work out that the term ‘Red Wedding’ signifies a massacre at a wedding feast and then use basic logic to guess at whose wedding - so clearly you either do want to spoil or think I'm really thick. Thankfully not many friends do this to me, but I encountered enough people who thought they were being really enigmatic by blatantly giving away key plot points that I decided to just read ahead so they would stop annoying me with their ‘I know something you don’t know’ twattery as if they’d been inducted to the cult of Cybele or something.
Anyway, book four of A Song of Ice and Fire picks up almost imediately after book three. And there my main problems with this book start. Martin’s initial plan for the series was to include a several year timeskip between books three and four – and you can really tell . Book three rounded most of the characters plots off to a point that made it perfect for a timeskip – Arya was setting off for Bravos, Sansa had escaped kings Landing, Jon had been elected Lord Commander, Joffrey had been replaced on the throne by his brother Tommen and, most crucially, Dany had decided to put off her invasion of Westeros and get some Queen-ing experience over in Myreen. It was ripe for a bit of off-page development and a ‘five years later’ type introduction. Martin’s plan went awry, however and was forced to continue straight on from the previous book instead. This means that things developed a bit too fast for my liking. Cersei’s plot – which is really the meat of this volume – should have been one of slow-burning political machinations spanning years but instead seemed rushed and squeezed in to just a few months.
In an effort not to scrimp on showing any of the characters, Martin has also split the narrative in two with A Feast for Crows catching up with only half the cast and the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, showing what’s been happening with the others. This means that fan favourite characters Tyrion and Danny don’t appear at all in A Feast For Crows. Given that I find Danny’s chapters the worst with their over sexualisation, exotification, and marked reliance on fantasy clichés when compared to the other chapters, I didn’t particularly mind losing out on those. And Tyrion gets the best chapters only by having the best supporting cast but is quite an annoying character on his own so again, I wasn’t fussed. I did miss Bran and Jon though. After all, I am much more interested in what’s happening at and beyond the Wall than I am in Danny’s boobs or Tyrion’s cock (who could probably get chapters to themselves by this point).
So I was mourning a couple of characters I’ve enjoyed since the first book when A Feast for Crows introduces a whole slew of new viewpoint characters on me; the Greyjoys of Pike and the Martells of Dorne. And partly due to their newness and distance from the main Westeros plot and partly due to the naming convention of their chapters I found it difficult to get into these characters. Instead of their chapters being titled ‘Arys’ or ‘Asha’ you get ‘The Soiled Knight’, ‘The Kraken’s Daughter’ and such – all of which rather invites you to see them as narrative devices rather than major characters or players in the Game of Thrones. Although I came to quite like the Martells and their scheming for revenge and rebellion, I found the Greyjoys plot line fairly dull. I assume it will be important later, but it’s hard to care about it.
The meat of the story, though, is Cersei’s and for the first time Martin gives us Cersei viewpoint chapters. As a Cersei lover I was both looking forward to and dreading this because Cersei worked so well in the first three books when other characters could only guess at her thoughts or motivations. And yeah, although I still love her I was kind of disappointed with what I saw in her viewpoint chapters and how quickly she lost her grip on things after Tywin’s murder. Most of this, though, comes from aforementioned squeezing down of the timeframe. As Littlefinger lampshades ‘I never expected she [Cersei] would do it quite so fast. . . I had hoped to have four or five quiet years…‘. You and me both, Littlefinger, that's about what I would have expected as well at the end of book three. The rapid development of Cersei’s plot just feels too fast to me, while I could perfectly see it happening at a slower pace. They’re still some of the best chapters in the book, due to being the main Kings Landing ones but it all just seems a bit too much too fast.
Other characters such as Sansa, Arya, Brienne and Samwell all put in appearances as well, but the plot of this book is definitely about the political landscapes of Kings Landing, Dorne, and the Iron Islands. Other chapters (although I loved Arya’s) really do come across as removed interludes to main meat of the story, essential for the wider plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, but not for the smaller plot of A Feast for Crows. Martin did some interesting things with the Stark girls, playing with their sense of identity now that they are both in hiding and disguised, but most of Samwell and Brienne’s chapters often felt unnecessary with plot points dragged out over two or three chapters that could have easily been done in one. This was the other pacing issue with this book, while previous instalments in the series may have been long there always seemed to be a point to every chapter, book four feels a lot more aimless.
That said, and I know Ive been pretty critical, I enjoyed this book. Martin’s prose is still not great and occasionally terrible (the prologue is, just as in the last book a real struggle to get through) but once I got used to it it was a very enjoyable and compelling read. It’s not as good as previous books in the series, but that doesn’t make it bad either. I do hope, though, that when book six finally comes out with all the characters back together again, that the series will return to A Storm of Swords quality. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I first started reading Ivanhoe when I was eight and promptly managed to lose my copy among the piles of books lying around the house. Although...more 4 stars
I first started reading Ivanhoe when I was eight and promptly managed to lose my copy among the piles of books lying around the house. Although I didn’t get very far it stuck with me – mainly because of the cover, a knight on horseback – and is something I’ve been meaning to pick up again ever since without really knowing much about what it was about. So naturally when I spotted this beautiful little edition in the ‘three for two’ pile I grabbed myself a copy without even bothering to read the blurb. And boy. . .if I had actually finished reading this when I was eight it would probably be one of my favourite books ever.
Everything about the story is practically designed to appeal to eight-year-old, Robin Hood loving, King Arthur obsessed, me; jousts and tournaments, conniving villains, witch trials, castle sieges, nobility in disguise, plots of high treason…Robin Hood himself even puts in a pretty major appearance! From twenty-three-year-old me, however – who expects a bit more in terms of characterisation and knows a lot more about medieval history – it only gets a 4 star rating. While I had immense fun with it I just can’t quite love it with the passion I know that little-me would have.
It’s ‘historical fiction’ with the emphasis firmly on the ‘fiction’ and there are some truly glaring inaccuracies and anachronisms. But that’s part of the charm, I think. Sure I could pick a thousand little and not so little holes in the story and details, but I enjoyed myself too much to feel the need. As the afterword in this edition succinctly puts it it’s more ‘Robin Hood land‘ than ‘medieval England’ and historical accuracy doesn’t really matter for the story it’s trying to tell. And ‘Robin Hood land‘ is a fitting description – despite the King Arthur-like trimmings of Knights errant, jousting tournaments, and damsels in distress – it’s a Robin Hood story through and through, although one where Robin Hood himself plays only a secondary role.
England after the third crusade, Richard the Lionheart trapped in a foriegn prison, and his brother John plotting and scheming to seize the throne – it’s a setting familiar to anyone with even just Disney knowledge of Robin Hood (an underated Disney classic that needs far more love). What Scott does with it though is shift the focus from the oppression of one greedy monarch on the poor to a more systematic and widespread racial tension; the Normans (descendents of William the Conqueror’s army) oppress the ‘native’ Saxons, nobility and laymen alike, and both the Normans and the Saxons oppresses, misuse, and hate the Jews. The Saxon-Norman tension is certainly an interesting twist on a familiar setting and it was nice to see the widespread antisemitism of medieval England acknowledged and criticised, I just wish that the Jewish characters, particularly Isaac, hadn’t conformed so damn much to antisemitic stereotypes themselves – it undermined the point in places and made portions of the book downright distasteful to read.
Ivanhoe, though, is definitely an action rather than character-driven story and relies on this sort of stereotyping to work. While there is a large cast of pretty wonderful characters – Cedric the Saxon and Wamba the Jester being my personal favourites – there’s not that much depth to any of them. Which to be honest is mostly fine with me considering the clear action-adventure slant of the story. Apart from my feelings about Isaac, the only characters I wish we could have seen more of were Ivanhoe himself (who for the title character does surprisingly little and is far less interesting or fleshed out than almost every other character) and his love interest, Lady Rowena (who, when compared to the Jewish heroine, Rebecca, comes off incredibly lacking in the personality department). That, the antisemitism, and a truly implausible event near the end of the book is really what stops me from liking this more because, blandly perfect main characters aside, the events and the supporting cast are both great fun.
It’s not a fast paced book my modern standards, there’s probably too much ponderous description and historical asides, but I quite like that; it’s a style that fits the setting and there’s plenty to enjoy in the way of unlikely character interactions even when there’s not much action going on. When the action does come round though it’s exactly the sort of chivalric knights and castles stuff you expect – which is exactly what I was reading for. Tournaments, sieges, out of control fires. . .the only action scene I found disapointing was that the final showdown ended on a bit of an anticlimax – more swordfighting would have been nice.
If you’re into tales of King Arthur, medieval chivalry, or Robin Hood and don’t mind your historical fiction very heavy on the ‘fiction’ side it’s definitely worth a read. In the end though, if you’re looking for a ‘serious’ classic rather than a fun (if wordy) adventure story, this one is rather more style than substance.(less)
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredi...moreCrossposted from my blog
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredients are there – it’s centered on a character I normally like, on events that are often just skated over as prologue, and grounded in more unique ‘realistic’ Dark Age Britain than the typical ‘castles and knights’ setting. It was also pretty popular back in its day. Alas, I learn, yet again, that popularity often has little to do with quality. It’s not that I actively dislike the book – it’s solidly in ‘ok’ territory – but I can’t really think of anything I liked about it either. There were a lot of neat ideas but, like every character in this novel, they were never developed.
It’s told, first-person, from Merlin’s perspective as an old man looking back on his life. However, the first few pages of the prologue, where Merlin describes how his memory works as an old man ‘the recent past is misted while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured’ is the last time the narrator sounds the age he is meant to be. When describing his childhood, he sounds like neither a child or an old man looking back on events – his voice simply narrates things, as they happened, with very little passion or personality, even when describing his strongest feelings. It’s all a bit too measured and distanced so that, despite being the narrator, I never felt remotely drawn to him or that I had any sort of grip on his personality. Since Merlin was both the narrator and the only character that seemed intended as more than a bunch of familiar stereotypes, this was a pretty big problem.
The story chugs away pretty slowly and, because I wasn’t enamoured with the narration, at times it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Even when things did happen, though, I didn’t feel particularly excited. Everything had a tendency to happen to the characters, rather than the characters doing things for themselves. Even declaring war seemed to be just a natural course of events rather than a proactive decision made by a person. This lack of agency was only enhanced by Merlin’s magic – which rather unsatisfactorily seemed to consist of knowing what to do and that he would get out ok. As he says himself ‘I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of god blowing through it’. Which means that, since Merlin never once tries to stray from this path or do anything for himself without ‘the wind of god’, that there’s really no tension, and that anything Merlin does achieve isn’t something that can really be attributed to his character but to the undefined ‘god’. It robs Merlin of the moral ambiguity he should have and makes him a dumb, uninteresting, tool instead of a great, cunning and complex character. Throughout the later sections of the book when Merlin’s reputation had grown far and wide, all I could think of was ‘why? He’s done nothing for himself yet’. If his personality had been more complex, this wouldn’t be a problem, but his personality was simply ‘I am the breath of god’ and never got any further than that.
And if you don’t like Merlin there’s really no one to relate to or care about in this book. His servants Cadal and Cerdic are both quite likable – but almost completely interchangeable. His teachers Galapas and Belasius have quite different methods and attitudes, but don’t get meaty enough roles for this to even be an interesting contrast. Ambrosius is wise and patient, Uther is rash, petty and impulsive. Every female is either a saint, ‘slut’, or nursemaid. The simplistic style of both the narration and the characterisation actually left me stunned when, in the last half I discovered through repeated casual use of the word ‘slut’ and one boob-groping almost-sex scene that this wasn’t written as a children’s book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that makes it unsuitable for most kids (I would probably have really enjoyed this book about 15 years ago) but it’s a pretty stong indicator it wasn’t meant to be aimed at them. Which left me naturally wondering who exactly it was aimed at, because it really doesn’t read like a book aimed at adults either.
Eventually, the author’s note at the back of the book clued me in – people who enjoy the Arthur myth. Well, I love the King Arthur myth and it didn’t work for me. When Merlin visits the well outside Galapas’ cave I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, that’s a really clever reference to a line in Monmouth’ or when Belasius becomes Merlin’s tutor I wasn’t going ‘Ah, the romanised name of a character who got mentioned in an offhand remark in Monmouth’. Was I hell, I was hoping that they would be interesting and relevant characters and events in this book, the one I was actually reading. I’ve got nothing against these little references, actually I really like them usually, but if they take up that much page-time they need to serve a narrative purpose too. As it is there was a huge section of ‘part II’ that dealt with Merlin discovering that Belasius was a druid – and that’s not even a spoiler because literally nothing developed out of this multi-chapter waste of time and it was hardly mentioned again. The only purpose, seemingly, was to fit in the names of a couple of characters from Monmouth – one who did reappear towards the end, but in such a totally minor role that he may as well have been introduced to the reader then.
Despite all that I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book. Most of it would make an alright children’s novel and the only thing I really took offense to was the casual misogyny and the way in which every single female character was portrayed. And yes, part of this is the setting but I don’t think that’s an excuse – A Song of Ice and Fire has an even more misogynist setting with an even more pervasive rape culture, but it still manages to have strong female characters and to indicate that there is something deeply wrong and unpleasant with the anti-female attitudes of the societies it portrays. Merlin, however, despite hearing that his mother was beaten almost into miscarriage for getting pregnant outside marriage, despite observing the way she was treated, even despite learning later exactly how long his mother had known his father, still goes about throwing words like ‘slut’ around to describe a serving girl in a relationship with her master and then has the audacity to complain that she left him to fend for himself when her master leaves the house. This on the same page as he’s mooning over a totally transparently non-celibate nun. Only Niniane and Ygraine escape with anything remotely resembling complex characterisation – and even then it’s all about their love lives.
All in all a disappointing book on a huge number of levels for me. But I wouldn’t tell other people not to read it. I can see why people might like it but it simply didn’t work for me. As a retelling of Merlin’s early life I guess the ideas are quite interesting, as a story in its own right it’s simply dull. The elements are all there, but they’ve been stuck together with plasticine.
I’m half tempted to read the rest of the series anyway, just to see how Stewart handles King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but there are so many other books out there that I know I’ll enjoy, that I probably won’t bother.(less)
Mwaha! After 24 years I finally managed to finish The Hobbit! And I enjoyed it a lot more than I though I would.
To explain my apprehensions a bit more: I tried to read The Hobbit many, many times in my childhood and each time utterly hated it and failed miserably. I think several of the very numerous creases and damage to the cover of my family’s copy may even have come from me hurling it away in disgust. What annoyed me most though, what really, annoyed me was always that it was a story I should have absolutely loved – all the plot ingredients were there; quests, dragons, dwarves, goblins, treasure, all that fantasy stuff I used to practically live and breathe – but I just simply couldn’t get over the fucking tone of the book. I felt patronised by the narrator, annoyed by the constant outbursts of song, and generally talked down to. In fact, when I was about five, I very stroppily insisted that my parents never tried to play the audiobook in the car ever again (it was a staple for long journeys at the time) because, although the bits with the trolls and the goblins and the dragon were great, I was fed up of hearing how ‘Bilbo Baggins wished he was back in his hobbit hole. Not for the last time!’ repeated every few minutes.
So, despite loving the basic plot and absolutely adoring Lord of the Rings, I'd never managed to finish The Hobbit and was very, very apprehensive about giving it another go – but all the same I really wanted to at least try before I went to see the film. And actually I’m really fucking glad that I did, cause read with adult eyes I actually really liked it (though I confess to still being annoyed by the songs).
As I’m sure everyone will know, The Hobbit tells the story of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and his many wonderful aventures after becoming reluctantly roped into helping the least-prepared band of dwarves ever reclaim their treasure from the dragon who ruined their homeland. It also (again as everyone knows) serves as a prequel of sorts to The Lord of the Rings, though is very different in tone. Written for a younger audience it’s more episodic in structure and fun in nature than its sprawling sequel. The quest to recover the dwarvish treasure serves as an overarching plot but, for the first half of the book at least, the journey to the Lonely Mountain where the dragon lives is made up of a series of random encounters and seemingly unrelated adventures. More than being a fun adventure story, however, there’s also a strong character arc (for Bilbo anyway) and a surprisingly mature finale. For a rather slim book there’s a hell of a lot happens and, save for the stupid songs, there’s almost never a dull moment. So although I hated it as a child I have to admit that it’s not at all hard to see why it is such a very beloved children’s classic.
The first part, where the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf have to overcome obstacle after obstacle to reach the dragon’s lair is still probably my favourite – I’ve always been a sucker for ‘journey stories’ and all the really memorable incidents happen here, the trolls, the goblins, Gollum. But it’s also where the tone is at it’s most irritating – the ‘not for the last time!‘s are frequent (though thankfully not as frequent as I seemed to recall) and the Rivendell elves who sing the ‘O! tra-la-la-lally/here down in the valley!/ha ha!’ song deserve thirteen dwarven axes to the fucking head, but the Gollum episode alone makes up for that. Gollum is, quite simply, the absolute best thing about Middle Earth – full stop. I loves him, I loves him, I loves him.
The rest of the story never quite reaches the brilliance that is Riddles in the Dark where Gollum appears, but it’s still pretty damn good and, as the journey portion concludes and the company realise they actually have to face the dragon, Smaug, you begin to really see the influence that sagas and epic poetry had on Tolkien’s writing. At least one episode with Smaug is lifted almost directly from Beowulf (maybe more, I’m only partway through Beowulf at the moment) and the characters prove to be far more flawed and selfish than you normally find in the heroes of children’s books. It turns the fun romp through the forests and mountains of the first half into something more poignant and mature. I’m not entirely sure I would have got on with this section so well when I was younger – I was normally asleep by this point when we played the audiobook in the car and I probably wasn’t used to protagonists turning out to be dickish and random people who had only just been introduced doing important deeds that would normally be reserved for the heroes – but I liked it and it is, I think, one of the things that sets The Hobbit apart from similar children’s adventure stories.
And onto the downsides. Again, I found the songs and poems (with the exception of Gollum’s riddles) annoying, far too frequent, and mostly unneccessary. The last chapter alone had three songs in it – none of them needed. I guess there must be people out there who like them but I’m really not one. They were shorter than I remembered though, which was something at least. The amount of stuff per page ratio also meant that very few of the characters apart from Bilbo ever got that much focus or do much for themselves. The thirteen dwarves are, for the most part, completely interchangeable and there seems no reason for half of them to be there except to bulk up the numbers so that Bilbo can make the group a ‘lucky fourteen’. Thorin is the leader and a bit of a pompous dickwad, Kili and Fili are the youngest and therefore get all the shitty jobs, Balin is friendlier with Bilbo than most of the others and Bombur is constantly refered to and berated for being fat enough for two. And that’s literally all the character traits I can remember. I think Oin and Gloin light a candle at one point but I can’t remember them doing anything else even remotely useful. It’s the nature of this type of epic adventure storytelling of course to focus almost solely the main character (few of Odysseus’s sailors or Beowulf’s companions are even given names for example) but it does make them feel rather like dead weight a lot of the time. Combine that with the fact they’re also the most incompetent bunch of adventurers ever, constantly in need of rescuing and never managing even a single thing for themselves, and I feel rather sorry for the dwarves. They clearly didn’t know (or stop to consider) just what their quest actually entailed. They’re so clueless about their planned adventure that they pack musical instruments but no proper weapons! I can’t help but feel that Gandalf really should have given the poor things a better briefing.
Overall though a very enjoyable little book. The bits that annoyed me as a child still annoyed me as an adult though not to anything near the same extent. I do wish there had been a bit less singing and a bit more of certain characters in it, but I liked it all a hell of a lot more than I was expecting to. A pretty solid 4 stars.(less)
It’s that time of year again; it’s summer, it’s sunny, and I have exams coming up – which means lying out on the lawn with a p...moreCrossposted from my blog
It’s that time of year again; it’s summer, it’s sunny, and I have exams coming up – which means lying out on the lawn with a pile of revision, a cold drink, and a Jeeves and Wooster book onside to de-stress between doses of Cold War politics. Add to that the company of my beautiful old dog, take away the revision, replace the non-alcholic drink with a pitcher of Pimms and it’s damn close to the perfect way to spend the summer. And as such I tend to think Stephen Fry is bang on when he says of Wodehouse; ‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour’. Damn bloody right. Thank You, Jeeves is probably not the best of the Jeeves and Wooster books and it certainly has it's flaws but it is still a hilariously funny, lighthearted, comedy of errors that deserves every one of the five stars up there for pure enjoyment factor but loses one, I'm afraid, because I'm just not comfortable with some of the attitudes that were considered 'ok' when this was written.
Bertie is, as ever, a charmingly clueless narrator – I confess I have something of a book-crush on old Bertie – with a wonderfully imaginative yet almost childishly simple mastery of the English language that conveys not just the story but a very stong sense of his own character - something that’s often strangely absent from first-person narration. I was having too much fun reading to make a note of all the brilliant phrases, metaphors and similes that made me laugh out loud but there’s one on almost every page. Just opening the book at random gives me ‘He made a noise like a pig swallowing half a cabbage, but refused to commit himself further’ and there are many more and better descriptions in there too if I were to try and hunt them down. The quality of the plot almost doesn’t matter when the writing is this good.
But the plot in fact is fairly stong. Although I could see almost each twist coming up as I approached it was with gleeful anticipation rather than bored ‘knew that was going to happen’-ness. It’s no spoiler to say that it follows the formula of every other Jeeves and Wooster story ever; Bertie inadvertently gets into an awkward situation, which through a series of misunderstandings and ill-conceived attempts to remedy then escalates even further until, just as everything is about to go really bad, Jeeves rescues him with some fiendishly simple plan. It’s a good formula and I was very glad to see that it managed to hold up pretty well when stretched to fill a whole novel – my previous Jeeves experience being just the first three volumes of short story collections. I doubt it’s the best of the Jeeves and Wooster series, but it’s not bad either, especially as a first try.
The one warning I would give is that it is incredibly politically incorrect and racially problematic in places – a lot of the story revolves around Bertie, in blackface, trying to find some way to get the boot-polish off and being constantly foiled. There’s also some casual use of the ‘n-word’ as an perfectly acceptable everyday description. If you keep in mind the time the story was written and the context, it’s not as bad. Blackface minstrels (as far as I can tell there are no actual black characters) were a shamefully real thing, they did exist, and they were a part of the cultural backdrop of the period the Jeeves books are set in (in fact I'm ashamed to say they lasted until the 70s in the UK) – but it is definitely jarring to modern sensibilities and the situation even more cringe-inducing than it was for its intended audience. Nothing intentionally offensive, I hope, but unintentionally. . .very. I (a white girl) was able to half-overlook that and try to forget it to focus on the other wacky events, but I wouldn't blame anybody else at all if they weren't.
Apart from that one rather shocking aspect, it is a good book and, once I accepted ‘ok, different time period, different standards’, I got back to enjoying the situational comedy. Bertie is brilliant, Jeeves is as coolly clever as ever - though there isn't as uch interplay between them as in previous collections, and the side characters were of pretty high quality. I liked Pauline Stoker a lot more than many of the previous female characters in the short stories – I’m meant to, of course, but still - she had a bit of spirit going for her even if she was a bit silly on occasion. While Sir Roderick Glossop making a reappearance and refreshing the reader on his history with Bertie is always fun. The other side characters were a little bit samey-samey filling their designated roles of ‘old schoolfriend in love’, ‘disapproving father’, ‘annoying child’, but Jeeves and Wooster relies on these sort of stereotypes and repeated roles so, until they actually start feeling tired or ringing completely hollow, I’m not going to complain.
As I said, it's probably not the best Jeeves and Wooster – I’m currently collecting the next few novels and so hope to find out shortly – but damn enjoyable if you’re able to get over the different standards of the time. Just what I needed to help me get through revision. However, I’d strongly recommend starting with the first book, The Inimitable Jeeves, and working from there though rather than jumping in here at the first full length novel. It works perfectly well as a standalone book and further reading isn’t required but Bertie does occasionally reference past misadventures from the short stories in passing.(less)
Read a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of sho...moreRead a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of short stories based on fairy tales. Some stray closer to simple retellings than others (The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon) but they’re all original works rather than just an update of Grimm/Perrault.
I haven’t read much Angela Carter before – just Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, which she compiled rather than wrote herself – but I had heard a lot about this collection from friends who studied it at school or university, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In the end I loved it. Not all stories quite hit the note for me – The Erl-King was probably my least favourite – but each had such an interesting idea behind it, or style of writing, and I could see what Carter was aiming for that it didn’t cause me to feel I should deduct a star. And even if some stories were superior to others they all worked together as a complete collection very well. Almost every story contained a female character that subverted the traditional ‘fairy tale female’ role in some way, however subtle, and was a theme of female sexuality running through all of them that united the collection just as much as the fact that they are all based on folklore and fairytale.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. In fact it’s what put a few of my friends off the stories – that there was so much sex and focus on sexuality, virginity and menstruation in something that was meant to be a ‘fairy tale’. But as someone who frequently finds myself objecting to passive female roles in both fairy tales, novels, and TV and film I found myself really enjoying this book, even if parts of it did seem a bit heavy handed. I also tend to agree with Carter in that these things are there in the original stories if you just look and think for a few moments, she’s just highlighted them and given the women a bit more agency. So for me it didn’t seem like it was ‘ruining my favourite childhood stories’ at all, but merely offering a different perspective on them.
The book opens with the title story, The Bloody Chamber, by far the longest story of the collection and quite possibly my favourite. Based on the tale of Bluebeard, its plot sticks very closely to that of the original, but is told in first person from the perspective of Bluebeard’s latest wife and updated to mid 20th century France. Instead of being an anonymous woman in a fairy tale the unnamed narrator becomes a real person, easier to relate to – a young woman not forced into but willingly marrying a much older man she feels nothing for, and is a little intimidated by, in return for his money. I have to admit this characterisation did not endear me to her at first but being able to read her thoughts, why she had done it, how she had had to rebel against her more sensible mother, and the slow realisation of what the marriage actually entails helped me to feel for her as a person who had made an understandable, if very unfortunate, decision. By telling it through the teenage bride’s eyes Carter highlights the more subtle everyday horrors that are there but very much brushed over in the original – the terror of a young girl getting married, the fear of her wedding night, anxiety about disappointing her more experienced husband, the realisation she’s trapped in a relationship with someone she doesn’t want to be with, having sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, enjoying sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, the irrational jealousy of a man’s previous partners and inferiority complex that comes with that. It’s all very relatable, even though I haven’t exactly been there myself. The discovery of the ‘bloody chamber’ itself is just the culmination of a growing sense of unease and ‘wrongness’ about the husband that has been building up from the beginning. As well as bringing out these overlooked themes I also prefer Carter’s ending to the original. It’s arguably still a bit of a deus ex machina but it is a better foreshadowed one.
The next two stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. Mr Lyon again stays pretty close to the original in terms of plot only updating it to an era of motorcars, while Tiger’s Bride is more of a subversion. Of the two I preferred The Tiger’s Bride, perhaps because it didn’t feel quite so familiar. The ‘Beauty’ character’s father being a compulsive gambler who loses their fortune, drags her through Europe, and finally gambles her away to ‘la Bestia’ was a refreshing twist on the kindly old man of most versions, struck by misfortune through no fault of his own. Again this story is told in first person by the heroine but she’s a much more feisty character than the narrator of The Bloody Chamber and reacts in quite different ways to their broadly similar situation, quietly refusing to be dominated by the men in her life and offering no compromises to them until they compromise themselves.
Puss-in-Boots is a very different story in many ways from the rest. It’s a comedy for one, not as gothic in tone as the other tales, and the female character stays fairly firmly on the sidelines. It’s told rather brilliantly through the eyes of Puss in Boots, which makes for great lines such as ‘I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats’ and tells the story of the trickster cat trying to secure the beautiful, married, woman his whoremongering master has fallen for. It’s a humorous, very bawdy, little story that doesn’t require thinking too seriously for.
The Erl-King and The Snow Child I’m honestly still not sure about. I know what Carter was trying to do with The Erl-King and I actually really like the concept but, for whatever reason, I found this story a lot harder than the others to get sucked into and enjoy. I think it’s one I might have to give a reread at some later date to get full enjoyment from it. Meanwhile The Snow Child is such a short and odd little vignette writing up my thoughts could only spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it – but it’s the story most of my friends studying this book had the most trouble with and I can see why.
The Lady in the House of Love then plays off vampire mythology rather than fairy tales, telling the story of Dracula’s lonely descendent stuck in her crumbling mansion unable to see the light of day, and the arrival of a bicycling soldier there on the eve of the First World War. It’s the most original of the stories and, I think, a beautiful example of vampire fiction – haunting, lonely, and gothic. Possibly not what one would really expect in a book that’s meant to be based on fairy tales, but as a lover of gothic literature as well I wasn’t complaining. It was one of the highlights of the book for me and I think would stand up well in any compilation of vampire short stories as well (in fact I spotted several people here recommending it for consideration as one of the best works of vampire literature since Dracula).
And from vampires to werewolves, the last three stories all play off Little Red Riding Hood and similar stories. The first, The Werewolf is again so short saying much at all would spoil it so I’ll content myself with saying that I liked it, but that the story seemed very familiar – though that could easily be the result of pop-culture osmosis, (this book being published in 1979 and having a fairly big impact) I think I’ve read almost identical stories in collections of folklore. The Company of Wolves is more strongly linked to the familiar Red Riding Hood tale, with the girl being lured from the path by the ‘wolf’ who beats her to her grandmother’s house. To be honest though I’ve heard so many interpretations and retellings going ‘Red Riding Hood’s really just about sex – didn’t you know? The Red Hood totally symbolises menstruation’ that I just don’t particularly care for hearing it again. Angela Carter was probably one of the first to do so and it’s possibly this story that has influenced so many others to bang on about it though so I will cut her some slack. It’s a very well written piece but for me the standout part was the first third or so, before it gets to the Red Riding Hood narrative, and is just giving lots and lots of lovely folklore-and-mythology-like anecdotes about wolves and werewolves and the stories of people who have been turned into wolves.
Wolf-Alice is the final story based, apparently, on a version of the Red Riding Hood tale I’m not familiar with, tells the story of a feral child raised by wolves. ‘Rescued’ after her adoptive mother is shot dead she goes first to a convent, where they despair at her wild ways, and then sent off as a servant for the mysterious Duke – who has no reflection and likes to cannibalise the corpses from graveyards. I had a bit of trouble trying to work out what exactly the Duke was meant to be – a pre-Dracula type vampire or werewolf perhaps, when the two were more similar and a lot less romantic, or possibly a ghoul. But in the end it doesn’t really matter – whatever he is he’s lost enough humanity that he no longer has a reflection and humanity itself is disgusted and fearful of him. The story’s not really about him anyway (I just found him fascinating) but a coming of age story for Wolf-Alice who, raised by wolves, has no understanding of either time or puberty but has to grow up and develop from a wild dog-like child into a young woman, with only her own reflection in the Dukes mirror to guide her. It’s a powerful little story, but for me not quite as good as The Bloody Chamber or The Lady of the House of Love.
Although I didn’t love every individual story in this book I think it is a great collection, well worthy of five stars, and one I am sure I will be returning to frequently when I want a short and familiar read. The sex and feminism probably isn’t for everyone, I’m ready to allow that, but I quite like a bit of intelligent feminism in my literature, especially if it’s challenging the predominantly passive role of women in fairy tales and giving them back a bit of a voice. The narrator in The Bloody Chamber may do almost exactly the same thing as she does in the traditional stories, but here there’s a sense of her being a fully realised person, not a generic woman who does what she does because women are all fundamentally the same. (less)
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable a...moreCrossposted/edited from my blog
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable analysing it.This makes me a bit of an uncultured idiot when it comes to trying to write a review, but I’m going to do my best. When I do read poetry – and I’m trying to do so more – my preference also lies very heavily towards old-fashioned narrative and epic poems that tell an interesting story. Since I find the King Arthur legend (or legends) one of the most interesting stories there are, buying this book when I spotted it in the shop was a complete no-brainer. I don’t know what a serious poetry fan or scholar would make of it but as a piece of Arthurian literature – especially as a piece of medieval and British Arthurian literature – I found it to be an unpolished gem of a book.
The Death of King Arthur tells the story, with no magical frills or whistles, of Arthur’s last invasion of Europe and his return home to face – and eventually die at the hand of – the treacherous Sir Mordred. It’s a familiar story to almost everyone who’s read even a single children’s ‘life of King Arthur’ type book. What makes this version different, however, is that it does not follow the French Romantic tradition of having Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery as the cause of Arthur’s downfall – in fact there’s no mention of any affair between them and Lancelot gets only a walk on part – instead it’s pure politcs and territorial war that takes Arthur out of Britain and gives Mordred the chance to seize power. As someone who finds Lancelot a rather dull (dare I say ‘Mary-Sue’) character who gets too much exposure at the expense of other knights, I really welcomed this angle. Once the sword’s pulled out of the stone Arthur often seems to fade into a background character – here he’s no doubt the main character with both moments of incredible military skill and high emotion.
This ‘unromantic’ motivation also makes for an ‘unromantic’ poem that focusses not on the idea of courtly love and lofty ideas of ‘Albion’ but positively revels in the horror and brutality of medieval warfare. It’s gloriously unapologetically bloody and violent, to open a few pages purely at random gives me:
"Then good Sir Gawain on his grey steed gripped a great spear and speedily spiked him; through the guts and gore his weapon glided till the sharpened steel sliced into his heart."
"Then eagerly Arthur opened his enemy’s visor and buried the bright blade in his body to the handle and he squirmed as he died, skewered on the sword."
"leaving wounded warriors writhing in his wake; he hacked at the hardiest and hewed them at the neck, and all ran red wherever he rode,"
There are decapitations, guts spilling out of war wounds, people being impaled through the loins…you think of a nasty way to die and I can almost promise it’s there. Little-me would have loved this poem!
Alas, I’m no longer little-me and I do demand a bit more character development and deeper storytelling to go with my macabre enjoyment of gruesome descriptions. After a promising non-Lancelot focussed start, the middle section gave way almost to a list of who was killed by who in what vividly described way. Most named only appear once or twice and with the exception of Arthur and Gawain (and perhaps Kay if I’m feeling generous) it’s very hard to feel anything for the knights on either side of the battles. I have to confess to several times being confused as to who was fighting who and why. It’s no Odyssey (or even Aeneid) that you could write an essay just on the psychology of a sidecharacter, and for a long time during the middle section I feared I was going to have to give this three stars, but it redeemed itself. Once news of Mordred’s treachery (and the implication of Guinevere’s as well in this story) reaches Arthur things get back on track. It’s still more endless guts and blood but the motivation – and the cost – is both more familiar and more relatable. Even the battles seemed to have new life breathed into them with a wonderful description of naval warfare sticking out especially. And once one of Arthur’s favourite knights is slain on the battlefield there is, in my eyes at least, a beautifully powerful depiction not just grief on Arthur’s part but guilt and shame from the murderer as well. It’s a tantalising hint of the author’s ability at portraying emotions that is, sadly, a little too set aside in favour of bloodshed for most of the poem.
There are other glimpses prior to this – particularly in the second of the two prophetic dreams Arthur has (one of the very few ‘fantastical’ elements of the story) – where Arthur sees himself rise on the wheel of fortune only to be thrown off again. But it was his grief at seeing his friend’s body and the way he openly wept, threw himself on the corpse and had to be almost dragged away before his grief turned to anger and vengeance that struck me. That’s a more human and emotionally Arthur than I’m used to and it packed a punch that I wasn’t expecting after the rather scant emotional story of the rest of the poem.
The rest of it is solid stuff, for what it is. The various wars take up the majority of the poem but there is one traditionally Arthurian type of adventure near the beginning where Arthur pauses his warplans to rescue a kidnapped damsel from a monstrous ogre-like figure who cuts off the beards of the knights he kills and turns them into what I can only imagine is the sexiest patchwork gown imaginable. Apart from that though it’s (more) blood, guts and simplistic and unsympathetic ‘he was rude to me, so I’m going to kill him’ from then on. I enjoyed it, and I’m happy to admit to loving the blood and guts, but it wasn’t until the last section that I felt emotionally invested in the story.
As for its quality as a poem… I don’t know. I found it less well crafted than Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I found myself stumbling over the words and puzzling to make out the rhythm more often – but I also know I’ve been cursed with the worst sense of rhythm (and tone) imaginable and it’s probably perfectly simple for anyone with half an ounce of musical talent. I like this alliterative style of poetry though, it’s one I find very accessable. How much of the language and alliterative bits I liked (or didn’t) is down to the original author and how much Armitage I couldn’t say, and wouldn’t like to guess at. Another translation may well be better – I don’t know, but I did enjoy this one.(less)
First reviewed (with beginners introduction to the basic premise of the series) on my blog January 2012. Text and rating edited here because of hindsi...moreFirst reviewed (with beginners introduction to the basic premise of the series) on my blog January 2012. Text and rating edited here because of hindsight and different audience/ratings system (I imagine anyone searching volume 16 on goodreads has already read the previous volumes and doesn't need protecting from spoilers.).
This volume contains 3 stories: ‘The Ascent’, a one issue comic featuring Bufkin the flying monkey, ‘Waking Beauty’, a one issue focussed on Sleeping Beauty, and sandwiched in between them, the main multi-issue story ‘Super Team’.
‘The Ascent’ was a nice, solid start to what I can only assume will be an ongoing plotline independent from the main story. Bufkin the monkey has worked his way into my heart as one of my favourite characters with his mixture of book-smarts, bravery, sheer stupidity, and pure monkey-adorableness ‘I hardly ever throw poop anymore’ is just a winning line. So far I’ve enjoyed his last few solo issues immensely, and I enjoyed this one too, though not as much. This was mainly a transitory story and didn't have much going for it on its own, it's point was simply to get the character from A to B. The introduction of an Oz plotline too is a little worrying. But that’s probably just because I never liked Oz very much, in fact I found it tedious and patronising to the extreme when I read a few as a kid. However, I shall try and keep faith that Willingham will make it work – I never liked Snow White or Cinderella very much either and I have a total girl-crush on both in Fables – so I will reserve judgement until the story gets far enough to fairly judge it.
‘Waking Beauty’ is another transitory story, but one I actually found myself enjoying more. It was nice to see not only what became of Briar Rose (I was never particularly comfortable with her earlier fate as the sacrificial woman) but how the homelands are funtioning without the Adversary. Seems all our Fables have done is create a power vacuum. Who could have predicted? (I'm a History student, that question was sarcastic). Although I know Briar Rose's story is continuing in the new spin-off Fairest rather than Fables this story felt far more linked to the ongoing Fables plotline than Buffkins did. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next; here’s hoping Fairest will be a better spinoff than the mediocre, justly cancelled, Jack of Fables.
And onto the main story! Not the strongest storyline by a long shot but it was fun, a decent bit of light and fluffy to contrast with how dark the last few volumes have been. The basic premise is that, after all other attempts have failed, Pinocchio wants to put together a comic book super team to battle Mr. Dark. It’s about as silly as it sounds and is basically an excuse for Willingham and the artists to have fun affectionately pastiching the X-Men and other superheroes. I do love the parodies of vintage comic covers, but then I'm the sad sort of girl who had art postcards of those original covers on her wall throughout uni. As always I am in love with Bigby (Big Bad Wolf) who fills the ‘Wolverine’ role on the team. It’s also nice to see Ozma getting fleshed out a bit more, apart from Frau Totenkinder I've never really had the feeling that the 13th floor magicians were much more than background scenery.
The resolution to the Mr. Dark plot I found a bit disappointing and anticlimactic, I would have preferred something less…cheaty, but I can’t deny that it made sense and was foreshadowed in advance. It also throws up some interesting directions as to where the story will go from here, so I'll try not to complain too hard. For me the highlights here were the development of Beauty and Beast’s subplot, a little scene between Snow White and Bigby Wolf (not the 'woman's job is to look after the kids while I do manly stuff' - the other one), and a hint that there’s yet more new trouble brewing on the horizon. Plenty to keep the comic going on for the moment but I do hope it picks up it's game soon - everything since the fall of the Empire has seemed a bit lackluster compared to the first few volumes.
Definitely one of the weakest volumes for me – though nowhere near the low-point of the series (the dire Great Fables Crossover). It’s not one for new readers to start with but new readers shouldn’t be starting anywhere apart from volume 1 (or possibly 2) anyway. A three star book that I’ll definitely reread (Fables, along with Harry Potter, is my comfort read whenever my depression gives me a particularly rough time). Hopefully volume 17 will be back up to 5 star quality but am not too disappointed with this. Of course it all depends where it goes from here.(less)