The second book in the Temeraire series continues in much the same vein as the first; a solid read, but nothing mind-blowing. After the reveal...more3 Stars
The second book in the Temeraire series continues in much the same vein as the first; a solid read, but nothing mind-blowing. After the reveal at the end of Temeraire (His Majesty’s Dragon for you non-UK folk), the Chinese have taken offence and demanded their dragon back, prompting Laurence and Temeraire to travel to the Far East. Much like the first book, the pacing is still a little slow and the characterisation a little too simplistic to my taste – the main focus seems to be the world-building and showing how different cultures interact with dragons – but it’s a fun read.
The pacing though... Somehow, despite there being two dragon battles relatively early on, Throne of Jade plods along at a leisurely crawl. It’s a long journey from Bournemouth to China and Novik doesn’t skip over it – in fact it takes over half the book. As a result, the action when they actually reach China and the resolution of the story both feel extremely rushed and more than a little unsatisfactory. After all the build up it took to get there, I expected a bit more.
Character-wise, Temeraire is still falling into Mary-Sue grounds with me and Laurence remains teetering on the edge of it, with very few other characters developed enough to form much of an opinion on. There still don’t really seem to be any shades of grey in these books for me. Either you like Laurence and you eventually prove to be an essentially good guy (though not as good as him, obviously) or you dislike him and prove to be nasty. I was actually really disappointed with the resolution and the choice of villain because of this. I didn’t want China to get closer to Laurence and the British – the Chinese envoy had it absolutely right when he was slagging off British imperialism, opium smuggling, missionary expeditions and general colonialist imperial dickbaggery. I would have preferred a resolution where Laurence got to keep Temeraire, but where the bad guy’s opinions weren’t quite so invalidated by his villainy.
What grey there is mostly comes in the characters attitudes towards the setting and world-building, Laurence is (of course) anti-slavery while his good friend and former naval colleague comes from a slave owning family that owes their fortune to plantation farming. But he's still presented as a good guy… Though given how little attention everyone but Laurence gets given I can happily say I don't like him. We’re also meant to increasingly compare slavery to the plight of British dragons and their lack of freedoms and rights as the series goes on. This theme was touched upon in book one but becomes much more overt in Throne of Jade. It’s one of the details of the world-builing that I like – if you’re going to have intelligent dragons they should be asking why they don’t have equal rights to humans, and it’s one that’s obviously going to be explored in later books. I really appreciated the fact, too, that even Laurence was forced to acknowledge how much better the Chinese treat dragons and the failings of his own country – that was nice. But a bit more attention on human slavery in those instances where it did come up would have been welcome. The narration feels very detached in those scenes and there's something a bit unsettling in a book that tries to make you care more about the abuse of a fictional animal's rights than the abuse of real people's.
But the book, and indeed the series, is really more about world-building than it is plot – or so it seems so far. Looking through the blurbs for the next few books thy could almost be summed up as ‘one man and his dragon travel the world’. It’s Turkey next, and later there’s Africa, South America, Australia and more! Although I’m intrigued as to how each of these countries/continents deals with dragons, I have to admit I am a bit anxious as to the strength of story that is going to tie it altogether.
At the moment it’s still just the Laurence and Temeraire show and neither are especially interesting. If I am to stick the series out and eventually read all 9 books, the supporting cast is going to have to start getting more focus and more development.(less)
‘LITTLE INDIAN BOY GOES ON WEIRD BOAT RIDE WITH MEAN CAT.’ - so reads the entirety one of the top rated reviews of this book on goodreads and,...more 3 stars
‘LITTLE INDIAN BOY GOES ON WEIRD BOAT RIDE WITH MEAN CAT.’ - so reads the entirety one of the top rated reviews of this book on goodreads and, to be honest, it’s hard to think of a way to expand on that. This one of those books I have a hard time saying much about – it’s a good book, there’s lots to like about it, and I can see why it’s such a popular and well-loved novel but, for me, it just didn’t do much but fill a bit of time and I can't find much of interest to say about it. It felt a bit like a beach read – one of the books my mum used to hand to me once I’d exhausted all my own stuff while we were on family holidays – a book that, yes, I quite enjoyed but was reading more because it was there than because I was particularly enthralled by it. In fact, and this is something that doesn’t happen all that often, I prefered the film version.
The novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a religious Indian teenager, who finds himself stranded at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. And I would probably have liked the book a lot more had it got that point a lot sooner. The first portion of the book instead is devoted to Pi’s childhood as the son of a zookeeper (interesting), his fascination with religion (also interesting) but is frequently interrupted by the ‘author’ (it’s one of those fake ‘real stories’) breaking in to describe his impressions of older Pi, the house older Pi now lives in, or the food older Pi now cooks, or the family older Pi now has. It was a really clumsy, lazy way to hear more about how Pi's life turned out in the end and on top of that it was written in italics, in the present tense. People who insist write in the present tense should all be put on lifeboats with a tiger and sent out to sea. People who write in first person, present tense should be put on a lifeboat with two tigers. People who do both of those things but do it in italics as well should be sent out on a lifeboat full of tigers.
And while I found younger Pi’s interest and practice of various religions interesting (one of the highlights of this portion of the book is where his priest, his imam, and his pandit all run into him at the park and realise he has been practicing other religions behind their backs), I found older Pi judgemental, full of himself, and annoying. ‘[Agnostics] get stuck in my craw‘, ‘To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to chosing immobility as a means of transportation’. Fuck off. Because someone does not know whether a god exists or not does not mean they are chosing ‘doubt as a philosophy of life‘ , it just means that they don’t know (and let’s be honest nobody does). Pi is one of those irritating people who doesn’t seem to understand that simply not being interested in whether god exists (as opposed to being either religious or vehemently atheist) is not only perfectly possible but perfectly valid. And then there’s his ‘I was such a great student I would have won all sorts of awards for my brilliance but my department didn’t offer awards so I didn’t’ stuff. Blech.
But once the story moved onto the lifeboat the book improved vastly. The author stopped butting in and the focus moved back to young Pi and onto how he survived 200+ days stranded out at sea with a tiger. Now I freely admit I’m a sucker for castaway and survival stories. If someone is putting together a water purification system using nothing more than a bit of string and a ballpoint pen (or something equally ridiculous) I’m happy. So although fishing bores and disgusts me in just about equal measure in real life, I enjoyed reading about Pi’s attempts to catch fish, his descriptions on how best to de-shell a live turtle, how to train a Bengal tiger with a plastic whistle, and the way to build a raft using lifevests and a couple of oars.
For as long as the Robinson Crusoe type stuff’s going on I was pretty happy, that portion of the book was really damned good in fact. But then, much like Stig of the Dump ruins the ‘making a livable house for a caveman out of rubbish’ magic by throwing in real magic and time travel, Life of Pi ruins the ‘boy and his tiger adrift at sea’ magic by throwing in a random encounter better suited to Gulliver’s Travels or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Yeah, I know, it’s meant to be “symbolic”, to remind the reader that Pi is potentially an unreliable narrator who may have been lying the reader, and to make me ‘believe in god’ but it just felt…bleh. Maybe if there had been more of it, if the story had got progressively weirder rather than just these couple of random things shoved in right at the end of an otherwise ‘realistic’ account I could have bought into and enjoyed it a bit more. As it was I thought they were very interesting ideas – that seemed to belonged in a whole different book.
Yes, this is a very shallow reading of the book that pretty much ignores the symbolism and religious messages running through it. But there’s plenty of reviews that already go into that at great depth and the reason I don’t is simply because I didn’t find the symbolism and religious themes of faith and belief in this book anywhere near interesting or thought provoking enough to go into. It’s a book that’s been sold as a lot ‘deeper’ than it really is – a beach read being promoted as a lifechanger. Does believing the magic tiger story mean you believe in god? or does it mean you’d rather believe in pretty lies than face the truth? Which story is true? Which would you rather believe? I can definitely see the attraction of this book and I can understand why so many people do love it. But I can’t be the only person who ultimately doesn’t care, can I? They’re both made up stories. Oh wait, there I am with my ‘philosophy of doubt‘ again.
An ok book. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would once the 'author' shut up and stopped butting in to tell me about Pi's cooking. And there will be bits that will stick with me, particularly from the middle section, but it’s not a book I can love. It reads like something my mum would lend me (in fact this copy is actually hers), a nice quick read picked up from the bestsellers chart. And although I generally like my mum’s taste in books, really, I do, it’s not really mine.(less)
Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before remin...more 3.5 stars
Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before reminding myself that a) it’s probably far too expensive for me b) I don’t read non-fiction that often and have a whole bookshelf of it already that I haven’t managed to read yet, and c) I’m not as much of a sciencey person as I would like to be and probably won’t understand it anyway. However, this winter I managed to get myself a temporary Christmas job in Waterstone’s entitling me to 40% (40%!) discount for the month of December. So naturally I not only bought absolutely all of my Christmas presents there, I treated myself to some as well by ignoring all the paperback fiction I normally pick up and going straight for the stuff I always talk myself out of buying.
Kraken, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to its gorgeous cover (and it is a gorgeous cover). I liked it, I almost really liked it, but in the end I just had too many reservations about the writing style to enjoy it as much as I had been hoping to. It started well, for the first few chapters I was utterly hooked – cephalopods fascinate and creep me out in almost equal measure – but then it seemed to lose direction. I’d had some issues with Williams’ writing in the early chapters – it’s very obvious from early on that she’s a science journalist rather than a scientist and it reads like Sunday supplement journalism – always bringing it as much back to the author of the piece as the actual subject. Too many unneccessary ‘I think’ and ‘This reminds me of’ or slightly over-flowery scene-setting that actually distracted my attention from the subject and reinforced the presence of the author in moments that didn’t need it. But after a few chapters it seemed to lose something in the sense of direction as well.
Although each chapter does flow on from the other and although it’s full of fascinating stuff, I still can’t really quite work out the logic to the structure. It all seems to flow in a slightly aimless way, a bit hither and thither, sometimes moving onto something else and sometimes revisiting things from earlier chapters – which leads to quite a bit of repetition. Of course it’s probably thanks to Williams’ journalist background that I can actually understand the science involved at all and am not overwhelmed by technical words and details. It’s definitely an accessable read that doesn’t require any qualifications in marine biology before you can understand it – but I do think that it could have benefited from a more scientific approach to structuring the chapters.
The second disappointment was that it wasn’t as much about squid as I had been expecting based on the title. And I’m not talking about the fact that squid share their page time with octopuses and cuttlefish – which are both equally fascinating – but the human characters who fill up the book. In many places it’s almost more about the human experts and cephalopod research scientists than it is about the animals themselves. ‘The Curious, Exciting, And Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid‘ is not just the science of how a squid works but how the squid has helped human scientists with other problems. So as well as learning about the evolution of the squid eye we get descriptions of the harvesting of squid for research purposes, stomachs being removed, heads cut off, and their enlarged axon (nerve cells) studied by students of neuroscience because they’re similar in structure but much larger than human axons. Now I’m not squeamish and I didn’t actually mind this, it makes fascinating, if slightly gruesome reading in fact – it just simply wasn’t quite what I had expected when I picked up the book. Interesting as I find dissections and scientific research (I was always upset that we never got to dissect an eye for GCSE biology at my school, a squid would have been amazing!) I’m more interested in the animals themselves than how Julie’s PHd about them is going (very well, as it happens) and would probably have prefered a lot of the human research stuff to appear as little asides rather than as the main focus of whole chapters.
But that’s a problem with my expectations – obviously Williams is more interested in the research and scientific potential of squid and it’s totally valid that she does chose to write about that. I’m not sure I would have picked it up had I known how the balance of science of squid/squids contribution to science was weighted, but I’m very glad that I did, it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I would probably, however, recommend it to people more interested in the sciencey side of things than the animal side – quite a few other reviews I’ve read were pretty disgusted with the animal cruelty of the scientific experiments and harvesting (I was pretty horrified myself actually by the octopus who had had the left and right sides of its brain split to function individually). For me the thing that bothered me most though was the ‘me-ness’ of the writing style – it’s rather like a tv documentary where the presenter is just slightly overdoing it so you’re always aware of their presence (more ‘The One Show does marine biology' than David Attenborough’s Blue Planet). But that didn’t stop it from being both an enjoyable and extremely educational read.(less)
Literally everything about the premise of this book is fucking awesome. I mean…It’s the Napoleonic wars! Fought with dragons! How is that not...more 3.5 Stars
Literally everything about the premise of this book is fucking awesome. I mean…It’s the Napoleonic wars! Fought with dragons! How is that not one of the coolest things ever?! It takes the dragon rider concept (which generally I kind of hate) and does something neat and unique with it. And it’s a fun book. It’s not high literature, it didn’t blow me away, but it didn’t waste the brilliant concept either. It’s light fun reading and I enjoyed it.
The protagonist, Captain Will Laurence, is a naval captain who, after capturing a dragon egg bound for Napoleon himself, finds himself in the unfortunate position of having a dragon hatchling imprint on him. With dragons being such valuable weapons in the war, Laurence is forced to give up his naval position, his position in society, and his fiancé, to join the Aerial Corps.
Now at the start of the book, I felt that both Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, came dangerously close to being mary sues – Laurence as the brilliant newcomer who does things better than the people who have been doing it forever, and Temeraire as the precious child with the armour piercing questions that make people reassess their beliefs and values. But, actually, as the story goes on Novik managed to subvert my early fears. Laurence isn’t the first person in the world to believe dragons should be treated nicely instead of as modes of transport! He’s still the first person to implement certain new training methods, but the other dragon riders aren’t ignorant about dragons either! He also makes mistakes and cocks up on occasion, which goes a long way to making up for him being brilliant most of the rest of the time. he doesn’t swoop in and transform the Aerial Corps, it slowly transforms him. And Temeraire… actually no, Temeraire is totally still a mary sue, but I guess he’s a dragon so… we’ll see if he has any cock ups himself in later books.
Other really refreshing things about this book in no particular order. Despite the dragons, it’s a historic war novel, not a fantasy novel. There’s no big bad evil guy plotting the heroes downfall, just two countries at war, using dragons as weapons, sure, but with fighters on both sides being ordinary humans no better or more moral than each other. Dragon riding! It’s not just one guy sitting on the back of a dragon being superfluous (cause really what can a dragon with one guy on the back do that a dragon on its own can’t?), Novik takes full advantage of the fact that dragons are big. These are dragons crewed by whole teams of people; it’s dragons as air-bound naval warfare, people hanging off harnesses, shooting their guns at enemy crews and battling off boarding parties. Romance! Or lack thereof. There is a romance thread to this book, and I actually don’t particularly like it, but I really respect that it does not, at any point, become the main focus. There’s no angst, no ‘does she like me?’. Laurence splits up with his fiancé and he gets over it straightaway because he’s got important shit to deal with, his life’s been turned upside down, and he’s too busy/tired to think about her much. And when he meets someone else who can fit in with his life, it’s just one small aspect of the story, barely a part of the main plot at all. That said, I’m still not sure I like that relationship (although I do like both characters) but thank you Novik for sparing me romantic wangst about it. Nicely done. Oh and working females into military roles even in a historical setting – always a fan of that. More of that please.
It’s been a while since I actually read this book (am trying to catch up on my review-backlog) but reviewing it now has got me looking forward to the next book all over again. It’s just the sort of easy fun read I need during term-time too, so I’m bumping books 2 and 3 back up near the top of my ‘to-buy’ list.(less)
Ah, Greek mythology, one of my pet passions. Like most people my introduction to the world of Greek mythology came through a children’s book...more 3.5 Stars
Ah, Greek mythology, one of my pet passions. Like most people my introduction to the world of Greek mythology came through a children’s book that retold some of the more popular and enduring legends – Heracles, Odysseus, and Jason. That particular book will always have a very special place in my heart (and on my bookshelf). It wasn’t, however, this book.
Although objectively a much more comprehensive, intelligent, and less simplified introduction to Greek mythology than many of the brightly illustrated ‘Children’s Book of Greek Myths’ out there, I never quite managed to click with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes. I enjoyed it, as I enjoy all retellings of Greek myth and, as an adult with a fairly decent knowledge of the subject, I could appreciate what the author was doing; his unique approach, the way he highlighted several little-known figures or versions of events. But, for me, the magic that first made me fall in love with not just Greek mythology but mythology as a whole, simply wasn’t quite there.
Whether it’s that the tone was a little too old-fashioned and slightly mollycoddling (Zeus ‘marries’ the mothers of all his children) or that I’m simply a good fifteen years older than the intended audience and bring with me a whole different set of knowledge and expectations, I’m not sure – probably a very strong helping of both – but I could only get into this book as an intellectual exercise (‘ooh, that’s a version I’ve not seen before’ ‘Ha! He censored the incest out!’) rather than as a particuularly gripping story in its own right. To someone looking for an accessible introduction into the myths and legends of Greece, however, I would strongly recommend it.
The real strength of this version above other ‘introduction to Greek mythology’ books is that Roger Lancelyn Green takes a chronological approach. Instead of cherry-picking the best and most well-known stories (Heracles, Perseus, Theseus etc.) and simply retelling them, Green attempts to tell the whole story of the ‘golden age’ of Greek heroes; from the creation of the world and the war with the Titans right through to the defeat of the giants and the death of Heracles (the tale of the later Trojan War and Odysseus’s adventures are told in a second book). Each story is fitted in to the wider context and there’s a strong narrative thread that runs throughout the book even as different heroes take it in turns to assume the leading role. I didn’t always agree with the order Green chose to sort his stories into – I think placing the adventures of Theseus before those of Jason was a wrong one; Theseus being among the Argonauts adds very little to Jason’s story while taking away Medea’s role completely from the Theseus myth and giving it to an unnamed ‘witch queen’ instead. But then that’s how it is with Greek myth – there are so many versions of a single story that once you try to iron it all out there will be contradictions and which version you go for is ultimately down to personal preference.
In the end, though I enjoyed it, this book didn’t quite work for me as a piece of entertainment. I loved the idea of it, and I loved stumbling across names I was only vaguely familiar with and having to jump to my numerous dictionaries of Greek mythology to do a bit of fact checking. But things like attempting to tell the story of Oedipus without reference to either the killing of his father or his marriage to his mother, or the story of Heracles’ conception with Zeus portrayed as guilt-stricken by the deception and only sexing up a married woman for the sake of creating a hero were simply too laughable for me to take the book entirely seriously. Still, I would recommend it as well worth a read to anybody with an interest in Greek mythology, and not just as an introduction.(less)
Graaaar! Where were these books all my childhood? Damn Rick Riordan for not writing these a decade earlier!
Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book....more5 Stars
Graaaar! Where were these books all my childhood? Damn Rick Riordan for not writing these a decade earlier!
Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book. A lot.
Picking up a year later after the events in the previous book it got off to a slow start. The first few chapters felt rather like a rehash of the start of The Lightening Thief: it’s the end of school year and Percy is unpopular and picked on because he’s befriended and defends the ‘weird’ guy – who inevitably turns out to be more than just a ‘weird’ guy – followed by a monster attack and a run to the safety of Camp Half-Blood. Once there, however, things pick up.
Camp Half-Blood is no longer safe – somebody has poisoned the magical tree that protects the camp and monsters are breaching the barriers to attack. The gods have blamed Percy’s mentor, Chiron, and replaced him with the wonderfully horrid Tantalus. Only the Golden Fleece can purge the poison from camp and renew its protections. But the Fleece lies all the way across the mythical ‘Sea of Monsters’ and is currently in the possession of one of the worst of them all – the man-eating cyclops Polyphemus – who has captured Percy’s best friend Grover. If Percy and his friends can’t travel through the dangerous Sea of Monsters and get there in time Camp Half-Blood will be destroyed and Grover eaten by a sheep-loving monster.
The stakes feel a lot higher and far more real than they did in The Lightning Thief, with its rather generic threat of a war between the gods. Here the things at risk are people and places both the reader and Percy are more familiar with, and I felt far more invested in Percy’s quest to save them than I did in the previous book. It also helped that Odysseus and Jason are probably my favourite heroes and that I’m a complete sucker for adventures set out at sea – and this book was heavily based on the Odyssey with Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, Polyphemus, and the Laestrygonians all making appearances. The tone felt more in keeping with the idea of classical greek myth and epics than the previous book, which was Orpheus as a modern roadtrip with added monsters.
Also an improvement in this book was the characterisation. Both Percy and Annabeth feel a bit more fleshed out after a whole book getting to know them and a whole host of side characters have been introduced. Tyson and Tantalus are my absolute favourites of these, but I was really glad to see other campers being given names and a bit of personality as well – one of the things that bothered me in the first book was that Percy only seemed to interact with about three named half-bloods while he was at camp and the rest were simply nameless blobs on the sidelines. They still don’t play a big part, but it’s nice to see that they’re being acknowledged and aren’t just faceless props.
What I really like about Percy Jackson though is Riordan’s ability to seamlessly include and explain a whole host of Greek characters and monsters without letting up either the fast pace or humourous tone to indulge in an unwelcome info-dump. There’s no question that he knows his stuff and he strikes the balance just right at giving a quick, accesable, overview for those who aren’t familiar with the material, and not getting it wrong or being patronising to those who do.The handling of Tantalus is probably my favourite example from this book. One of the most infamous Greek criminals he is so not the person you want running a children’s camp that his appointment – and his cavalier attitude to monsters trying to pick off his charges – is just hilarious. The way Riordan explained his backstory and included and adapted the punishment placed on him by the gods is just an added stroke of brilliance. There are some twists somebody with knowledge of Greek mythology might spot (the parentage of the cyclopes for example) but it doesn’t impede on enjoyment at all.
The Sea of Monsters, as well as being a brilliant self-contained storyline itself, also develops and advances the overarching series plotline wonderfully. So much so that even bare bones reviews for future books will likely contain spoilers for the first two. The villain and his top henchman are taking a more active and less sneaky role, working almost in the open to recruit a whole host of mythological nasties that makes me really excited to see how the final confrontation’s going to go down. There’s also the reveal of the real reason the ‘big three’ aren’t allowed to have children. It may be another prophecy (in a genre where every protagonist seems to have a prophecy about them) but I prefer it to the ‘powerful demigods started WWII’ reason given in the last book. Maybe because I’m old enough that my grandparents fought and lost friends and relatives in WWII but I always find the ‘it was caused by magic’ explanation found in a lot of fantasy and urban fantasy rather distasteful. Now that a better reason has been given I can ignore that one little niggle that much more easily.
In short, a wonderful novel that can be enjoyed by both children and adults, mythology lovers and the uninitiated. And it’s also that all too rare thing: a sequel that is better than the first book. I hope the trend continues, but I suspect that – with it’s references to the Odyssey and the introduction of Tyson and Rainbow – this will continue to be my favourite of the series for quite some time.(less)
The US and most other editions of this book are subtitled ‘Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean’ and that probab...more 3 Stars
The US and most other editions of this book are subtitled ‘Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean’ and that probably gives a more accurate impression of the contents because, for a book titled ‘Pirates of Barbary‘, I really didn’t think there was much of a focus on the actual pirates.
It started off well in the foreword, emphasising the disparity in the way that history and popular culture have portrayed European/American and African pirates. ‘The white West regards them as the irreconcilable Other – not rebels against authority but plain criminals, not brave Robin Hoods (that would make us the Sheriff of Nottingham) but cowardly thieves’. Agreed, that’s pretty much why I picked up a book about them. But I thought that, by the midway point, Tinniswood had somehow shifted his focus from African piracy, to the African states that practiced (and sanctioned piracy), to 17th century diplomatic relations between Africa and Europe – told mostly from a European perspective.
Now I’m being a little unfair perhaps, it’s a very natural progression – African states did sanction piracy and you can’t talk about piracy without some discussion of the state and its position because that position is what piracy relied on to operate. A weak state couldn’t afford to upset other countries, a state at war could prey on certain foreign ships with impunity, specific treaties would limit what ships pirates could raid etc. etc. But when it got on to the detail of land battles between armies over coastal African cities I thought the book had strayed a bit far from what the blurb had sold it to me as.
I wanted more of the nitty gritty, of the actual pirates themselves. but, mostly, I found this turned out to be more about how Europeans saw and interacted with them. Of course, most of the sources an English-speaking historian is going to get are going to be European, but considering the title of the book I had hoped for more a Muslim and African slant using Islamic sources rather than predominantly British, Venetian, and American ones. It’s still fascinating stuff of course, but not quite what I was after.
As for writing style, I read it in little bits and pieces so that probably effected my opinion, but it seemed to waver between slightly dull recitation of historical facts and oddly novel-like bits of description. The sieges and barricades and the politics of treaty making were related in minutest detail but then I would get to sections like the barbary raid of Ireland and it would suddenly be
‘The men didn’t like passing through the Straits. It made them nervous.
Maud Watched as one of the janissaries tossed the little bundle of candles over the side, an offering to the long-dead holy man who still promised them protection from the safety of his shoreline tomb.
Once he would have laughed. Now, without thinking, he murmured to himself the ancient form of words, at once a profession of faith and a prayer. There is no other God than God, and Mohammad is his messenger.
The candles vanished in the rolling sea’
Did my book suddenly get replaced with historical fiction or something? Is this how mass market history books are normally written? Most of the reading for my history undergrad was very academic essays and texts (normally fascinating, but sometimes dreadfully written), so I have to say that I feel slightly thrown and vaguely uncomfortable with this approach in a work of non-fiction.
So, although I learnt a lot from this book and really enjoyed certain parts of it, I do have my reservations about both style and content – perfectly demonstrated, in fact in the very last chapter of the book. A fictionalised description of two real pirates being executed. Two English pirates – ‘the last pirates to hang by British law at Wapping‘. Relevance in a book about Barbary pirates? Then a bit about how fear of Europre both stated and ended the age of piracy in Africa and then this concluding paragraph:
‘The . . . pirates of Barbary left a thousand crimes behind them. Their one virtue, whether they were renegade Christian fugitives or devout Moslem warriors for God, was courage. Deplore the crimes, by all means.
This was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this...moreThis was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this had a massive impact on my tastes and interests growing up. It also provided me with my first fictional crush in the shape of Ulysses (Odysseus - this book unfortunately adopts Roman naming for the heroes, though not the gods). As such I'm not even going to try to write an objective review here.
The book tells the stories of three legendary Greek heroes; Ulysses (Odysseus), Hercules (Heracles), and Jason. Each story is told in an almost comic book format - roughly 1-5 panels a page but no speach bubbles, the story is writen underneath each illustration in full continuous prose. This means that as well as the writing being simple and easy to understand for young reader's there's also lots of great visual imagery for younger children reading with their parents to interact with and appreciate. (My mum probably has a box somewhere of poorly rendered tracings and attempts to copy the more striking panels)
Although it's written for children it doesn't sanitise the stories any more than is really necessary - which is something I always appreciate when it comes to mythology. And as someone who sometimes handles show and tell of Egyptian and Roman objects in museums I can appreciate how hard it can be to get the balance right (hint: violence is ok, sex is not - make of that what you will). The circumstances of Hercales birth are rather glossed over, but the reason he had to do penance is not, nor is the lengths Medea will go to to for Jason. (On a sidenote how did that man think that shit wouldn't go down when he swapped her for a more politically advantageous wife? He almost deserved what he got for sheer stupidity).
After the end of each story ther's also a 'about the story' page which provides extra information on the characters, places, and mythology, as well as recomending other children's retellings of the same or similar stories (probably now out of print). It's a little simplistic but it served as a gateway into more serious Greek Mythology.
I realise this book is very old, probably quite dated, and out of print. But it was an absolute favourite growing up and deserves a bit of praise. It is single handedly down to this book that I eventually went on to do an A level in Classical Civilisations, considered doing Classics as my degree, and opted for several Ancient History modules when I eventually went down the History route instead. Although my opinions on the heroes have changed as I've read more 'original' greek and Roman works - I was so disapointed with Odysseus when I read Homer and lost a lot of respect for Jason when I read Euripides - my love for this book remains constant. The only book that arguably had anywhere near the same influence would be my picture book of King Arthur.
So though I don't expect anyone to go out and buy this book (if you even can anymore) I felt it deserved a review. And I am going to keep my Ribena stained, broken, spined, sticky paged copy and if I ever have kids (or if my sisters do) I will pass it on and hope that it inspires the same sort of passion for mythology in them too.(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)