I think this is the point where me and Alex Rider have to part ways. I thought the potential was there in the last book, the seeds of some good...more2 Stars
I think this is the point where me and Alex Rider have to part ways. I thought the potential was there in the last book, the seeds of some good turn-you-brain-off fun were there and I gave it the benefit of a second chance for being the first book of a series with room to improve. But with this second book I’m now totally convinced: Alex Rider just isn’t my thing. Maybe when I was a pre-teen, perhaps, but, for me, this isn’t one of those children’s or young adult books that is written in a way adults can enjoy as well. And, as much as I loathe gendered reading and saying ‘this is for boys, this is for girls’, it’s especially not written in a way for adult females to enjoy. I’m not going to say it’s not a great children’s book though – because there’s a lot to love if you are the target audience and if the target audience love it and it gets kids reading than that’s the main thing and I won’t say a word against that. But it’s not for me in a pretty big way.
Putting aside the totally ridiculous, insane, plot for a moment – it could have worked for me under a better writer – the main problem is the narration. Omniscient third person with little informative asides about how the technology behind certain things work and how that applies to what Alex is doing/about to do. I suppose it’s necessary for the story he wants to tell, there are several scenes of the evil villains in their lairs, the MI6 back home that would be impossible to tell from a first person or third person-limited. What it does do though is create a distance between the reader and the main character – hell any of the characters. It’s all tell and no show ‘Alex felt this’, ‘Alex did this’ without ever really feeling that I know who Alex even is or anything about what actually makes him tick. My favourite example would have to be ‘‘The words were cold and absolute and Alex felt the fear that they triggered‘ – I mean…how hard would it have been to make that sentence avtually about Alex’s feelings? He sounds and acts like some creepy automaton at least half the time in this book. The only thing we’re ever shown is action and the characters only exist in the most sketched-out half-arsed way to deliver that action. I thought perhaps, in the last book, Howitzer needed a bit more time to get properly into his characters but after this book I just don’t think he cares.
Even when Alex is apparently reacting in a human way he comes off as a psychopath. The book pretty much opens with an anvilicious ‘selling drugs to secondary school pupils is bad’ lesson where Alex chases down a drug dealer (apparently his best friend who we’ve never heard of before and can’t imagine we’ll hear of ever again has been hooked and Alex is out for revenge), decides he’d rather take care of it himself than call the police, and recklessly endangers the lives of possibly hundreds of people as he causes thousands of pounds worth of property damage breaking almost every bone in the drug dealers body. Eugh… maybe I’d have found this a fun scene if I was a child though. And if he’s not being a psychopath he’s whining (sometimes he even does both at the same time). The book opens with him moping and upset because everyone thinks he’s a wuss for taking two weeks off for ‘flu’ during the last book and he’s sad because he can’t tell them that he was actually being a super spy. The teachers aren’t sympathetic and his friend’s think two weeks for illness is excessive. Except that that whole concept is ridiculous – teachers will be sympathetic to somebody taking two weeks from school right after their guardian has died (of course Alex himself got over it in approximately two seconds, but his teachers couldn't know that, a normal teenager probably would be having trouble for at least a fortnight). They might not understand why nobody contacted the school for support but they’re not going to be frowning and tutting and disapproving when he comes back – or at least none of the teachers I have ever had reacted that way to children whose parents had recently died and needed time off. Eugh…adult-me just can’t even deal with how stupid the set up and characterisation is even before we get to the evil villain stuff! Not a good sign.
Unfortunately there’s more stupid to go through before we get to the evil villain stuff too: a stay in the country with a posh family and Alex’s first ‘Rider Girl’. If I tell you that she’s introduced (in a bikini) with the following words it’ll probably tell you enough: ‘Her body was well shaped, closer to the woman she would become than the girl she had been. She was going to be beautiful. That much was certain. The trouble was, she already knew it’. Again the problem of third person omniscient narration – this would have sounded far less creeptastic written from Alex’s point of view (either first person or third person limited) where it would have been less about the transition from a child and just about finding a girl of his own age attractive. As it stands it sounds like an adult narrator trying not to sound too pervy and coming off even worse for it ‘oh she’s not beautiful now, she’s only a teenager, but when she grows up… ‘ Not creepy at all! And note how she’s obviously a ‘bad’ person. She knows she’s beautiful so she must be a bitch. Give me a fucking break. Of course she then proceeds to be a bitch, quelle suprise, but falls for Alex anyway. Yawn.
I was almost grateful when the real plot finally got going and Alex got whisked away for ridiculously unbelievable spy shenanigans. And when I say ridiculous I mean it. I’m not going to spoil the details of the big evil plot but it’s totally insane. Oh and the villain is an evil albino South African with an ugly South African henchwoman (described as a ‘muscle-bound freak of nature’ by Howitzer in the afterword) who wants to bring back apartheid. I’m honestly not sure whether to be glad some children will at least learn about apartheid for the first time and hopefully start asking questions, or to head-desk at the execution.
But onto the good. The action scenes are still fun, though they’ve lost a lot of their tension now that Alex is such a Mary Sue. In my review of the last book I said Howitzer did a good job of making you almost fear for Alex’s safety – but I didn’t feel that any more here, even when the situations were much more dangerous. If you just want a children’s action adventure book though it’s pretty solid. There’s snowboarding, chimney crawling, men with guns and all sorts.
Overall though, while I could see the appeal to the target audience, I simply didn’t like this book and couldn’t even enjoy it much when I ‘switched my brain off’. I am glad my library gave me the tenth anniversary edition with the afterword by Howitzer though. It was enlightening - apparently he's not too enamoured wih the plot of this book either. But again I’m not sure whether to be grateful or to head-desk that he is obviously aware of the potential for reading racism into his books (even though he doesn’t intend them to be racist), and that he realises how problematic his practice of giving disabilities to the villains is. I mean good, he is aware of and aknowledges the issues, but unless that awareness actually translates into trying to improve his handling of these elements in future books it means precisely jack.
The afterword also furnished me with a basic overview of the rest of the Alex Rider books, and a glimpse into some of his favourite James Bond villains – which leads me to quite confidently say that I don’t think either series will ever be for me.(less)
Eugh. I really wanted to like this one. I was looking forward to it as some superlight reading after my dissertation but no. A...moreCrossposted from my blog
Eugh. I really wanted to like this one. I was looking forward to it as some superlight reading after my dissertation but no. And it makes me sad because, despite the recent lackluster issues, I do love Fables and Cinderella was one of my favourite characters. I enjoyed her last miniseries too – not as much as the main comics but enough to buy the second – but this is just…underwhelming on all fronts.
I’m especially disappointed with it because I was midway through drafting a post about how the portrayal of women in mainstream superhero comics puts me off buying them when this arrived on my doorstep and well…just look at that cover. Almost every other page seems to be an excuse to put Cinderella in underwear/a bikini/a towel/nothing. At least she has more human anatomy than a lot of comic book women but it’s still totally gratuitous. I know this Cinderella’s a sexy sexy spy who uses her looks as a tool – the first time we really meet her in the mainline Fables series she’s seducing a repulsive bloke as part of her job – but having her first appearance here be wandering round in a bikini in the snow (in Russia!) is ridiculous. Yes she has a reason for it and yes the first person narration acknowledges that it’s ridiculous, but that doesn’t make it better: she has a reason for it because the writer wanted her in a bikini enough that he made up a reason for it and then openly acknowledged the situation as stupid in the textboxes. There were many, many ways she could have used her spy skills to track the people she’s trailing down, the only reason to go for this way is to put her in a skimpy outfit. If it’s meant to draw people in it’s having the opposite effect with me – I’m now doubting that I even want to read Fairest (a new female-centric Fables spinoff) when it comes out.
But onto the story…what little there is. Fables are forever follow’s super-spy Cinderella’s attempt to track down her ‘archenemy’, a super assassin named ‘Silver Slipper’, accompanied by this miniseries Bond-Guy, the Russian Fable Ivan Durak (Ivan the Fool). Peppered throughout it are flashbacks to Cinderella’s previous run ins with Silver Slipper in the 80s which mainly consist of frames showing the two women shouting at each other, fighting each other, or tying each other up. The actual modern-day strand of plot is equally thin on content and complexity with things happening to the character rather than her making things happen. Cinderella seems to spend most of the time reminiscing about her previous encounters rather than actually doing anything.
And the Silver Slipper well.. although it’s revealed in the first issue I won’t share her identity – but if you’re familiar with the original books rather than the film adaptation it’s not gunna come as a surprise for you. While she could have been very interesting she ended up being a bit of cardboard cut out ‘evil woman’. I didn’t really get why she was so fascinated with Cinderella and I don’t get why Cinderella considered her her ‘archnemesis’. Silver Spy works as a mercenary for ‘Shadow Fabletown’, an organisation we’ve never been introduced to before but apparently stands in for Cold War Russia to main Fabletown’s America… really, did we have to go there? I know it’s a spy story and people love setting those in the Cold War but it doesn’t work. In fact ‘Shadow Fabletown’ seems to be minding its own business and doing nothing much besides ‘existing’ before Cinderella pokes her nose in. Her original mission seems pointless and her later mission to get a member to ‘defect’ to Fabletown seems even more so. Literally no reason is given why Fabletown couldn’t get in touch with a friendlier envoy and try to start up a better and mutually beneficial relationship – at the 1980s point in the story both groups are refugees from the same war with a common enemy, allies are just what they need! The whole Cold War element just seems ill-conceived.
Worse than the ‘wait a minute…’ moments though is the repetitive repetition (see what I did there?). As a miniseries I know the writer has to update the reader on what’s going on at the beginning of each issue in case someone missed the last or hasn’t read it since it came out and has forgotten details, but when they’re all collected together in one volume it doesn’t work. Every time we go to a flashback we get treated to a summary of what happened in the last issue’s flashback – when collected together this can be summarising a scene that happened as little as three pages ago and makes for really disjointed storytelling. Flashbacks and stories told in multiple timezones I can deal with – when I have to read the same scene told in an almost identical way several times I get annoyed. Maybe the summarising would have been less annoying had the narration not been first person from Cinderella’s point of view – it just made her sound forgetful and stupid - having to repeat and summarise herself so much - rather than the super-intelligent spy she’s meant to be. Even some important lines stressing the differences between Cinderella and Silver Slipper (‘I’m a patriot, she’s a ‘mercenary’) seem to have been repeated ad nauseam so that they no longer have any impact by the time we reach what’s meant to be the climactic show down between the two.
It’s not a terrible book though. It’s certainly not great, and it’s a massive step down from almost any of the mainstream Fables volumes, but I didn’t dislike it enough to give it one star. The plot twist at the end of the main timeline was interesting – even if I did see it coming – but most of the rest was just a series of things happening and unconvincing flashbacks that didn’t really fit with what regular readers would know about Fabletown history. So yeah…2 stars.
Oh and I guess I should mention that it’s got a one issue Cinderella story from the main Fables series tucked away at the back too. But I don’t quite understand the point: regular Fables readers will already have read it and newbies to the series well…firstly they shouldn’t be starting here and secondly it’s issue 51 and art of an overarching Fables storyline so a lot of the context that would be needed to really understand it isn’t there…
At least it completes a set on my shelves though…(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)
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)