The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of those fantasy books that, if you’re into fantasy, it’s impossible to avoid people telling you how brilliant4 Stars
The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of those fantasy books that, if you’re into fantasy, it’s impossible to avoid people telling you how brilliant it is. And, as is almost invariably the case, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
It’s a fast-paced, fun read with lots of great characters, a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, some interesting world building, and some surprising twists and turns, so it’s definitely not bad. And I certainly won’t be giving people who recommend it as ‘the best fantasy in recent years’ the side eye in the same way I do Joe Abercrombie fans (that trilogy should have been one book!). In fact, they may well be right. It’s a good novel, very good in places but, for me, those places fell firmly in the later half of the book and even then it didn’t quite come together enough for me to fall in love with it.
The book is set in the fantasy canal-city of Camorr and opens with Locke Lamore (the self styled conman the ‘Thorn of Camorr’) and his band of merry men starting a scheme to con a local nobleman out of all his money. These are not the most moral or idealistic or protagonists. But they have a strong bond that lots of readers loved and that I found almost instantly tiresome. There’s a lot of banter and teasing, boasting, and laughter in the first half that, for me, felt rather like watching a group of incredibly self-aggrandising men that I don’t know making in-jokes about how great they are to each other. And my pervading thought throughout most of the early chapters was mostly ‘yes, you’re the ‘Gentlemen Bastards’, well done, I got that, you’re the best, but where are the women?’ ‘Why are there no women?’.
There are women in the book actually, several of them are pretty hardcore in fact. But they’re only on the very periphery of things for much of the book and only start moving into the main action in the last portions of the story. To be fair, Lynch is obviously setting up for an important woman from Locke’s past to show up in the sequels at some point – with repeated references to Locke’s ex (and a member of the Gentlemen Bastards in her own right who is off doing her own mysterious unspecified thing somewhere else) – but these all feel clumsy and shoehorned. Without ever meeting her or being given any real idea of who she is, it’s hard to care about her, she is literally just a hole in the story. With even flashbacks to Locke’s childhood notably contrived so that somehow she is never in the scene, the air of ‘mystery’ around her actually has the exact opposite effect – making me hope she never shows up. At this point she’s just a vehicle of Locke’s manplain, and it’s sad that that’s all we get, rather than having an actual female character as a present and three-dimensional part of the gang.
So my first impressions of the book weren’t great – not bad, but not great. But, when the real plot comes along and shit starts to get real, that’s when I started really getting into it. It took me the best part of a month to reach the ‘turning point’ of the novel (approximately halfway through), and after that just two days to finish it – so that shows just how much I though it improved once the stakes were raised and the self-praising ‘banter’ stopped. There’s suddenly action, adventure, subterfuge! (well, more subterfuge!) And the strong bonds of friendship between the main characters are actively demonstrated rather than being an informed attribute. From not caring much at all for the main characters I became genuinely fond of (and incredibly concerned for!) both Locke and Jean (mainly Jean).
This improvement in pace and action doesn’t quite hide the weaknesses in the plot – a main villain who’s motivation is something I could barely care about and the second ‘shadowy person we assumed was a man is actually a woman!’ twist that I’d read in just two months (not a major spoiler, I promise. there are lots of shadowy figures). No. I actually hadn’t assumed the nameless figure could only be a man; because that would be stupid. And this novel doesn’t have the excuse the other one I read did of being written/set in the sexist 1950s – Lynch actively chose to make this a ‘twist’ in his fantasy world where sexism was never alluded to directly prior to the reveal. And, while I liked the character, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at all the ‘I thought x would be a man’ ‘no one suspects a woman’ comments that followed the reveal.
Is it really so hard to create a fantasy world where society-wide sexism isn’t really a thing? Is it such a hard concept to imagine? Lies of Locke Lamora is far from the only book to do this (*cough* A Song of Fire and Ice) but it didn’t bring any clever commentary to the issue (i.e. ASoFaI‘s various female point-of-view characters), and, to be frank, I’ve just grown a bit tired of it. Weary, is perhaps a better word. It’s not an unforgivable sin, the book does feature some amazing women (the Berangias sisters), but the whole replication of real world sexism is beginning to feel trite and tired and actually kind of boring. Fantasy writers, please start being more original.
Feminist rant over though! I genuinely did think that this was a very good book. After a slow start (that I know plenty of other people loved) it hits its stride around about the middle and from there never lets up. I loved Locke and Jean’s relationship, I felt for the characters, the secondary villain was awesome and threatening, the stakes were high, and the action scenes were brutally nasty. I cannot love this book, but I did really enjoy it. And I will be reading the next book in the series. Probably from the library. But, if that continues on the trajectory of the last half of this book, I’ll definitely consider buying the rest.
4 stars. Doesn’t quite live up to the hype and it has a few flaws but I still really enjoyed it in the end....more
If I’m honest I’m still not sure what to make of this book yet. It was a fun enough diversion, exactly the sort of thing I needed when I went 3.5 Stars
If I’m honest I’m still not sure what to make of this book yet. It was a fun enough diversion, exactly the sort of thing I needed when I went into the bookshop and asked for ‘something enjoyable I don’t have to think about too hard’ (it’s all I can manage these days now I’m back at uni). But, given the praise for Abercrombie that I’ve been hearing from various people who’s taste I normally trust, I have to admit I do feel a little disappointed and underwhelmed. Where were these clever subversions of fantasy tropes? The female characters? And where, dear god where, was the fucking plot?
The answers, apparently, are in the second and third books (I hope!), because there wasn’t really any of that stuff in this one. The Blade Itself is pure set-up, introducing the cast of characters and some very basic world-building. Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian who’s given up barbarianing, Jezal is a self absorbed fencer, Bayaz is a powerful old magician, Glokta is a torturer for the inquisition, etc. etc. And this is simply the book about how they meet. Imagine The Lord of the Rings, if Fellowship ended at the council of Elrond, after having followed not just Frodo’s, but each of the nine walkers individual journey’s and trials to get there – and if Gandalf then never got around to telling them about the One Ring but started leading them into Mordor without any explanation of what they were doing or why. That’s kind of what this book felt like.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. As I said, it was just the sort of stop-thinking-and-read book that I sometimes need and there was stuff that I enjoyed about it, but it could perhaps have done with less stuff that felt like filler and more actual plot.
And yes, I understand the need to avoid info-dumping in fantasy, really I do. But the opposite, not explaining anything, is almost as bad. On the very first page of the book we get introduced to something called a ‘Shanka’. And if you don’t know what that is, well, you’re in the same boat as me. Is the Shanka a tribe of people? The hold weapons and wear fur. Are they creatures? They are only referred to as ‘it’ and can take a chunk out of a man’s leg in a single bite. Even when their origins are revealed (400 or so pages in) I still have no fucking clue what they are or what they look like. From what I gather though, they’re basically serving the narrative role of The Others/White Walkers from A Song of Fire and Ice - creepy unnatural creatures who people think are a myth but actually live in the far North and are gathering in number ready to fuck everyone over when they head south – except that they really aren’t at all menacing or scary because I literally know nothing about them.
The Shanka are only a minor part in the story so far (presumably they play a bigger role in later books) but they’re the most obvious example of Abercrombie’s frustrating failure to explain things adequately. I don’t want a massive info dump, but I need to know enough so that I can understand and, perhaps more crucially, care about what’s happening. Without the context of what things mean or what their significance is, things that should be grand epic events like the visit to the House of the Maker just kind of fizzled because, unlike the characters, I didn’t have the information to understand why it was a big deal.
This sounds like I didn’t like the book at all. I did. Although it’s just setting up characters and gathering them together I did really enjoy some of those characters. Glokta as the embittered torture victim turned torturer is, quite clearly, the bestest but Logen Ninefingers is fun too, even if his plot line took forever to converge with the other two main strands. And Jezal…well he’s very believable as a completely shallow, self absorbed prat who’s had everything handed to him on a plate. In fact he reminds me disturbingly much of a guy I once had a thing with, and whilst I'm still friends with that guy, Jezal is definitely the least sympathetic or likeable character. But he is believable.
Women characters, however, fare less well. There’s really only two of any importance in this book. One is a badass runaway slave bent on vengeance and killing everybody. She’s only introduced halfway through and I haven’t managed to form much of an opinion on her beyond ‘I think I like her’. The other is a common born love interest who is just so clever and funny and pretty, but in a non-fashionable way, and is so not-like-other-girls’™ that I want to vomit. Why do writers do this, seriously? Is it only possible to praise a female character by pissing on absolutely all of the other ones? Fuck you (and yes I know this viewpoint is coming purely from Jezal’s hugely sexist unreliable thoughts but it’s still vomit inducing and makes me want to punch both of them in the face). We know she’s clever and funny because Jezal says so, but we never actually see proof of her being either. She has sexy dark hair, tanned skin and womanly curves in a world where the noblewomen are skinny white blondes who are only capable of the most vapid conversation! Spare me. But we know that she’s tough and not-like-other-girls™ because she drinks alcohol and says ‘fuck’ a lot.
And that’s the other thing about this book. There’s a lot of swearing. Which normally doesn’t bother me even remotely (being that I’m a huge swearer myself), except that it's overused to such an extent that it serves to make every character’s dialogue, from the well-dressed head of the inquisition down to the exiled barbarian warrior, sound pretty much the same. Everyone says ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ all the time, even when the swearword doesn’t really fit with the tone of what they’re saying. It often feels as if it's been shoehorned in for ‘realism’ points rather than put in to reflect how real people actually talk.
So yeah… an enjoyable read, really. It’s just easier to write about things that bug you than things that don’t. At this stage in the series though I don’t quite understand why everyone loves Abercrombie so much*. It was a fun book in a generic ‘low fantasy’ political intrigue-y kind of way and I’m expecting the next couple of books to get better as more stuff about the setting, characters, and plot is finally revealed. But, if I had got this out of the library rather than purchased the first two books on special offer, it would probably be one of those series where I never find the motivation to go looking for the sequel (much like Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb…I think I can admit now that I’m probably never reading the rest of that trilogy).
So three and a half stars. I enjoyed it, I really did. It made for a very fun, action-packed read and a great break from university work and I will be reading the sequels but, as a standalone book, it’s really nothing all that special.
*Though I am prepared to revise my opinion of Abercrombrie with books two and three....more
How to rate this book… Gone turned into one of my favourite finds of last year, I pretty much devoured the first five books in the series back-3 Stars
How to rate this book… Gone turned into one of my favourite finds of last year, I pretty much devoured the first five books in the series back-to-back and am eagerly waiting for the paperback release of the final installment. I would happily rate the series as a whole in the 4 to 4.5 star bracket. But it’s one of those series that is somehow more than the sum of its parts and each individual book falls more within the 3-3.5 range for me, with book one starting a bit bumpy and taking me a little while to get into. So I’m going to try to ignore hindsight and rate according to my first reaction on finishing the book. So 3 stars (I liked it but nothing special).
Trimmed down to its very basics, Gone, is a modern, sci-fi, teen-fiction version of Lord of the Flies - children without adult supervision descend into anarchy. It’s brutal and it’s nasty and has all the graphic violence and emotional reactions to it that The Hunger Games should have, but doesn’t.
Set in a seaside Californian town in the fallout zone of a nuclear power plant, one day all the adults, all the older children, everybody above the age of fifteen, simply disappears into thin air. The narrative follows several characters, but primarily the hero Sam, as they try to adjust and adapt to a world without adults and uncover the mystery of how and why they disappeared. And there’s a lot more weird stuff going on than just the adults disappearing.
Now I say it took me a while to get into this book and, I’m afraid, that was partly because I found the writing in the first few chapters quite poor. It’s third person limited, but somehow it read as if it should be first person. It felt almost as if it had originally been written in first person and then simply had the pronouns switched. I have no idea if this is the case or not, but it felt odd and jarring for a couple of chapters until the point where either I settled into it or it stopped happening. I’m going to assume the later because I didn’t have any problems with the narrative voice in the rest of the series.
The main protagonist, Sam Temple, is from the reluctant hero mould. He’ll step up when it’s needed, but he wants to slink back into being a normal teenager the minute the crisis is over. At the start of the story he’s known as ‘school bus Sam’ because of the time he took over the steering wheel when their bus driver had a heart attack. But reorganising society and order over a townful of fourteen-year-old and younger kids who just want to eat junk food and play computer games is a lot harder than steering a school bus and, understandably, Sam doesn’t want that responsibility. And with his birthday coming up he has other things to worry about - nobody knows what happens when you turn fifteen.
Step in Caine (and if you can see where this is going you’ll know why I rolled my eyes at this point) a charismatic boy from the sinister Coates Accademy, a private boarding school for ‘troubled kids’, who rolls into town with an entourage of supporters and a determination to become sole leader of the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone, as the kids have started calling it) and rather unpleasant methods of establishing and cosolidating this control.
While I really enjoy this series I found the first book just a bit much in places. The initial set up was good, I liked most of the characters, I liked the fact that they had and are dealing with real teenage issues not just the weirdness of their situation, I loved that the cast and the setting was as multi-racial as I expect a town of that size should be, that there were characters who were autistic, anorexic, or depressed but who weren’t reduced down to just that one stereotype. That’s the sort of stuff I want to see more of, much more of, in not just teen fiction, but all fiction.
What I didn’t like, reading it the first time without knowledge of the later plot, was when the writer threw in a whole kitchen sink full of weird at around the half way point. It still seemed just a bit too early for all of that. I would have preferred a slower burn with the weird; reveal the X-Men style mutations some of the kids have (if it’s in the blurb it’s not a spoiler!), but maybe hold back most of the other really weird shit for book two, or have it as an end-of-book reveal/cliffhanger.
Still, if you enjoy teen-fiction and you don’t mind it nasty and gory and morally grey, I would recommend the Gone series....more
Objectively the worst book I have read, not just since I started thinking critically about books or reviewing, but ever.
(view spoiler)[Dinner With a Vampire combines all the worst traits of paranormal romance – a bratty and self-absorbed female narrator, an unlikable physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive love interest, vampires who are ‘perfect’ with no faults or weaknesses, the human character being somehow more ‘special’ than other humans, barely fleshed out side characters, telepathic connections, forbidden love etc. etc., you name it. Just a few of these would be bad enough on their own even if written competently, but instead we have them mushed together nonsensically into a big mess where the basic principles of writing such as ‘plot’, ‘continuity’, ‘character development’ and ‘worldbuilding’ have been completly abandoned.
It’s a genuinely terrible book, and one I wouldn’t recommend to anybody (and would advise people who have ever been raped or in an abusive relationship to steer well clear of) but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to actively hate or abandon it. It’s so bad that I had to keep going, just to see how much worse it could get (the answer: lots) but too bad for me to hate it. Rather than resent having to read such poor writing, I can’t help but feel rather sorry for the teenage author (I know I certainly wouldn’t like my unpolished teenage writings published). This is, essentially, a first draft of a book that should never have got past the publisher’s slush pile and as such it feels very harsh to judge it even by the most basic standards of what I expect in a published work.
The reason why it did get past, of course, is obvious: ’17-year old Abigail from Brixham, Devon is already an online sensation, whose writing has attracted over 16 million views on Wattpad. None of her fans have yet to discover the breathtaking end to the novel and there is a huge anticipation to read the finale.’ There, right on the back of the advance aeview copy is the only reason this is being published: to cash in on a huge ready-built online audience by forcing them to buy a copy if they want to read the ending. Shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you. This is, presumably, also why the book doesn’t read like it’s had a proofreader, much less a competent editor – it has to be rushed off the press before the fickle online audience move on and abandon it - and as a result continuity and worldbuilding issues abound.
As an ARC I’m meant to ignore basic spelling mistakes and typos that won’t get past publication (‘would of’ instead of ‘would have’ was one particularly frustrating example but there were many more) what I can’t forgive the editor though is allowing some of the dreadful, confused, and often contradictory writing to slip through. In only the third chapter we have this gem ‘The sun was beginning to rise, and I glanced at my watch’ followed in the very next paragraph by ‘it … was approaching sunrise’ - yeah, we already got that thanks. Basic, basic mistakes. Later being able to feed without killing forms a major part of Violet’s decision to turn into a vampire, except…well she should already know that because it's obvious right from the begining. Elsewhere we have bizarre phrasing – ‘her skin draped in her coat’ does not sound like a description of a living person, much less an appealing description of one. Has she been flayed? No. Then surely what’s meant is that the coat was draped over her skin. And that’s far from an isolated incident, there are innumerable sentences and phrases that just sound wrong. The sort of basic ‘wait a sec…did you really mean to say this?’ stuff that should be so so easy to pick up on and correct but have just been left to lie because, y’know, 16 million readers already hooked, right? No need to bother spending time to make it a quality product! Again, shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you.
Not, however, that this book could ever have been made into a truly good book. The phrases could have been tightened, the basic mistakes corrected, but this was always going to be a horrible book due to the poor plot and dreadful characters. Credit where credit is due, I suppose, the author tries to steer clear of the ‘vampires are sexy but not remotely scary’ trope that’s slipped into vampire fiction recently. These vampires murder and rape without the slightest compunction, instead they’ve been thoroughly ‘defanged’ by forcing them to act like the stupidest, most immature, and most petty sort of teenagers imaginable. When you have a man supposedly in his hundred’s threatening his older sister that he’ll tell daddy when she lost her virginity well…it’s hardly dark and sinister and it’s certainly not ‘charismatic and sexy’.
And the author tries to have it both ways. Kaspar is dark and sinister, but he’s also a gentle little puppy waiting for the right woman to turn him into a noble prince. Those other vampires may be cruel and vicious, but he’s just misguided! And what better way to emphasise it than by using rape as cheap drama. Now Kaspar may have threatened to rape Violet, he may have sexually harassed her several times, but when another vampire violently assaults her he’ll come rushing to her rescue. What a hero! Oh wait, no. he still kidnapped, assaulted, harassed, and threatened to rape her. In fact, even after they have (surprisingly explicit) consensual sex, his pillow talk consists of telling her how he plans to rape the daughters of his enemies. No matter what ‘nasty’ vampires in this book you're meant to compare him with, Kaspar will still never be ‘charismatic, sexy‘ or even likable. I can fall for ‘evil is sexy’ in my fiction, what I can’t fall for is a character written to sound exactly like the sort of bloke who would rape you and then feel sorry for himself when you didn’t like it. That sort of petty evil is sadly all too common in the real word, it doesn’t need romanticising in fiction.
And then the whole ‘rape as a tool to push two characters together romantically’… oooh boy do I hate that trope. I don’t object to rape in fiction; it’s a real thing, it happens, frequently, and it needs to be discussed openly and not made taboo. The test though is in how an author deals with the after affects. What rape in fiction should never be is simply an easy excuse to scare a female romantic lead away from all men but the ‘hero’. And guess how it’s handled here? Yep, exactly that way. Before the rape; she hates Kaspar and sees through all his shit. After the rape; he rescued her and now they’re best friends and she totally wants in his pants. It’s handled so badly and so insensitively (despite a few ‘I felt dirty, I shouldn’t be acting this way’ protests from Violet that never ring quite true with everything else shown on the page) that only a few pages, and a few days, after almost dying from the attack she doesn’t mind at all when Kaspar sneaks into her room while she’s asleep, covers her mouth to stop her screaming, and then practically demands she consents to having him suck her blood. Better still as soon as he leaves his best friend comes in (the other side of the love triangle) and forces a kiss on her which she’s totally ok with. It’s just…it boggles the mind really.
I could go on about the bad things in this book forever but what, I think, they mostly stem from is being originally published serially online. Even if I didn’t know the origin of this book I’m fairly sure I could guess it just from reading. It doesn’t read like a book, it reads like someone’s simply hit the print button on an online fiction and then bound the pages together. Instead of natural, flowing, plot and character development this book is just a string of things happening for no particular rhyme or reason. No time for proper world building or character development, got to keep the audience coming back, can’t let up the pace! This might be tolerable when reading one chapter a month, maybe even one a week, but read it all in one go, as one reads a novel, and you realise that the tone and characterisation are just all over the place and that actually, no, it’s not ok for these things to be happening so soon after each other.
Then there’s the bits that seem obviously inspired by feedback comments from fans ‘oh you’re so Kaspery! – It’s a word I made up’, ‘I can’t die! I’ve never been to Disneyland!’ ‘It’s pronounced Sage-en, not Sagean’ (this last one is particularly dumb because the character had only ever heard the word so, not knowing how it's spelt, would have no reason to be pronouncing it with an ‘a’ in the first place).
Add to this the fact that the plot doesn’t even make sense – the easiest and least dangerous thing to do would just be to give Violet back to her family, bind her to an agreement of secrecy and let her go on her way. That and there is no way Violet could possibly ‘know’ the big secret she guesses blindly, and even less way that the vampires shouldn't already have considered it - but guess what? Her wild guess is totally correct and the vampires are stunned! Then there’s the sudden shift in genre near the end of the book as well; it’s all ‘clichéd vampire romance’ yawn yawn yawn. But then WHAM! ‘Actually there are several alternate universes and Violet is the heroine who has to save them all!’. Except instead of ‘wham’ it’s more of an ‘oh shit, I forgot to do my worldbuilding earlier or set up this plot thread properly but this is totally what this book is actually about’.
And then Violet... Why should I care for this character? I can feel sorry for her situation, but the character herself is not written to be sympathetic in any way. She’s lost her brother and that’s meant to be a big plot point explaining how she ended up where she did; except he barely gets referenced three times and it’s always ‘it was really sad when he died, it affected me a lot’ without ever actually seeing it affect her. Her ex-boyfriend cheated on her but that again gets about three references. Her little sister has cancer, but she’s too busy drooling over Kaspar to think of her family more than about twice and then acts like a total bitch to them at the end. She slut shames all of the previous girls Kaspar has ever slept with, deciding they must be ‘whores‘ (as far as I can tell none of them are sex workers and Charity, the girl particularly demonised by Violet, Kaspar and the autor, actually did fancy and want a relationship with Kaspar, it was him using her purely for sex). She pretty much slut shames her best friend (never mentioned again) in the first chapter, does the same to Kaspar’s sister, and even thinks of Kaspar’s exes ‘whores’ as she is shagging him. Why should I like her? She’s a judgemental bitch and her Stockholm syndrome isn’t written in anything like a believable enough way to prevent her from just looking like a complete idiot. (hide spoiler)]
In short: this book simply too bad for me to hate it. It's so clearly not of publishable quality that I just feel kind of sorry for it for not being given the constructive criticism and redrafting it so desperately needed before being sent out into the world.
Terrible writing, terrible editing, and a terrible plot. 0 stars.
Thank you to Waterstones for sending me an Advance Review Copy.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
How good did the blurb sound? A detective novel that takes place in Communist China! Unfortunately, and despite almost every other person I k 2.5 Stars
How good did the blurb sound? A detective novel that takes place in Communist China! Unfortunately, and despite almost every other person I know enjoying it, I found this novel pretty underwhelming. Proof, I guess, of just how subjective reading can be. It’s not a ‘bad’ book, it had a lot of promise, and it picked up in the middle after a slow start. But in the end it just wasn’t for me and I can mainly pinpoint this to four things: way too much exposition and introspection on unimportant details, obvious clues going unnoticed for far too long, descriptions and portrayals of female characters that consistently skeeved me out, and a main character that was hard to feel anything for.
So I guess I’ll start on the overabundance of exposition. The book is absolutely full of details about life in 90s Communist Shanghai. Which would be fascinating (and still is fascinating at times) if was slipped into the story with a bit more skill. As it is the author seems so concerned his audience won’t understand Chinese words or concepts that instead of simply letting them work out the meaning from the context he has to stop the story to explain them. Every, single, time. Which ends up creating a disjointed flow and making me feeling incredibly talked down to. I may not know a lot about communist China and I certainly want> to learn more but that doesn’t mean I want to be spoon-fed it like a baby. Despite all the information given about Shanghai here I never for one moment felt I had a grip of the city, like I could see it in my mind’s eye as I was reading. It felt like listening to someone who had been on holiday there talk about it (without photos), or sitting in on an informal evening lecture, rather than being transported there yourself.
I mean, information is all very good, but sometimes you've just get on with the story. If I don’t understand some minor detail I’ll do the same thing I would do for a book set in Britain or the US (and I frequently don’t understand geographic or cultural references in books set in the USA); I’ll grab a dictionary or open Wikipedia, and look it up. China is not fantasyland where the author needs to explain concepts and show off their world-building – it’s a real place, the information is out there if people want to go looking for more detail. And frankly even if this was set in a fantasyland where I couldn’t look things up I would still find the infodumping poorly timed and overused. Yes, Communist China is very interesting, but either get better at integrating your information into the story or save the explanations for the stuff that matters.
Maybe it’s a silly thing to moan about, the information on 90s China seems to be what most other reviews really loved about this book, but for me it mostly just spoilt the pacing. I just keep thinking that, if this had been written for a Chinese audience, with the assumption that the readers had a basic understanding of the setting, it would have been a much much stronger and better flowing novel (and it’s not as if relevant details couldn’t be put into notes at the end – translated fiction and old classics have endnotes for this sort of stuff all the time). As it is it’s too catered to ‘person who knows nothing about China’ and busy interrupting itself to explain the setting for it to actually get on with the story.
And it has a similar problem when it comes to portraying politics, or human emotion in general for that matter. It’s almost didactic in places, we’re spoon-fed exactly what we’re meant to think of the Chinese Communist Party. Every time something happens Chen’s explanation of the ‘political reasons’ is never far away, even when it’s just repeating the same thing we’ve been informed 12millionty times before or when it’s so fucking obvious it’s not hard to work out for yourself (I’m thinking particularly here of the final chapter and a prominent ‘well duh!’ moment for me). Trust me to work a little out on my own please, I already spotted all the clues to the mystery chapters before your detective after all.
Which brings me neatly onto my second objection: the mystery really wasn’t all that mysterious. A female body is found in a rural canal. Naked, strangled and wrapped in a plastic bag. A post-mortem reveals that she had sex shortly before her death, that her stomach contains caviar, and that her body shows no sign of a struggle. So what is the only hypothesis do the police originally draw from this? That she was raped and murdered by a random stranger. It takes about six more chapters for Chen to finally go ‘caviar! That’s expensive and well beyond her means. She must have eaten out with somebody!’ and when he does everybody is amazed by his deductive reasoning. The same deductive reasoning that told him earlier that ‘She could not have been romantically involved at the time of her death. There was no privacy possible in [her] dorm building’ – because apparently a couple is only allowed to have sex in the girl’s dormroom and meeting up elsewhere is totally out of the question! The list of overlooked clues could go on and on – but eventually they realise them and discover their suspect at around the halfway point. The rest of the book is mostly trying to prove that hedunit and working on discovering the motive against some half-hearted pressure to stop from higher up. In terms of a ‘murder mystery’ it’s rather lacking.
What really irritated me though was the way the female characters were presented. In part this is of course deliberate – the investigation unearths an underworld of misogyny, 'western bourgeois decadence', sexual blackmail, and both sexual and emotional abuse. The killer’s attitude towards women is truly vile. I expect to be disgusted at that though, and I expect to be irritated by the way that women were viewed in communist China (and not just there) as primarily ‘wives’, ‘Party members’ or ‘wanton‘ (seriously, I should have done a tally for the amount of times the author used/misused the word 'wanton'). What I didn’t expect was to be so utterly skeeved out by the protagonists attitude towards women as well. Oh he’s not a vile abuser like the killer, obviously, not by any means. He doesn’t overtly sexualise and dehumanise women as nothing but objects – but he does that sickening overly romantic ‘poetic’ praise, 'women are gentle flowers' shit which is almost just as dehamanising and creepy. The way he describes women’s appearance in such flowery ways (often accompanied by a Chinese love poem that the woman reminds him of), or the way the author constantly feels the need to point out when a woman’s t-shirt is ‘tight’ or her blouse is ‘almost transparent’ or that her nipples are showing through the fabric. Stop it, stop it, stop it.
The scene where Chen first meets his love interest is just terrible. He heroicly catches her as she trips over and the narration basically says that she ‘need not have been embarrassed’ because Chen found her attractive and didn’t mind the physical contact. Not only cliché but gross as well. Like, my embarrassment at tripping should be directly tied to whether the guy who helps me out finds me attractive? NO. Then there’s the scene where he realises the witness he’s about to interview is a prostitute, thinks about showing his ID card, but then decides he’ll have an exotic Japanese foot massage first. Yuck. Meanwhile his coworker Yu is out interviewing another potential witness and when she doesn’t want to speak to the police he falsely claims he has photos of her having sex and will release them to her employers. Again: yuck. Oh and then I’m meant to buy it when he is all outraged that her ex made exactly the same threats. I wouldn’t want eiher of these men as policemen.
I think I’m meant to find Chen an intellectual romantic but I just can’t. Yes, society seems to have taken a collective shit on women in this book, but Chen’s analysis is often totally misogynistic as well, basically amounting to ‘if women aren't married with children their lives must be miserable’. In part it is just a reflection of the time, I can aknowledge that, and that would actually have been interesting to explore. But the way that Chen is so very obviously meant to be sympathetic and seems to be almost an author avatar at times (they’re both poets and members of the Chinese Writers’ Association) made his interactions with women super awkward. And quite frankly I just can’t fell comfortable with a character when the third-person limited perspective is so skeevey.
Which, as I started off saying, all contributes to me not feeling very much in the way of interest in Chief Inspector Chen. He’s meant to be a bright young thing. An intellectual young police officer with a promising political career ahead and a private yearning for a ‘normal’ family life. Also everybody but everybody in the book thinks he’s awesome and freely tells everyone else how awesome and 'promising’ he is. But his constant poetical digressions slow an already slow book down and did nothing for me, and he seemed almost completely disinterested in the case (despite the narration frequently trying to convince me that it had taken over his life). And a disinterested detective makes for a disinterested reader. There’s no real urgency to solve the murder for most of the book, just endless descriptions about the changing structure of the communist party. And if the author and the main character can’t seem to bring themselves to care about the actual murder case the book is meant to be about, why should I?
Having said all that – and I realise it’s a lot of negaive stuff, more so than I expected when I started this review – I’ll repeat again: it’s not a ‘bad’ book. Lots of people far more clever than I am think it’s a very good book, it just contains several elements that personally irritate and/or bore me. There was enough of a good idea here and, when the book finally picked up, enough good writing, that I’m not going to write Qiu Xiaolong off just yet. Perhaps a lot of what I disliked can be ascribed to first-novel-nerves and the concept, if not always the execution, was very interesting. I’m not exactly going to go hunting down the rest of this series or anything, but if I see one of them on the library shelf and I feel in the right mood I might just give it a go. Now that the setting's been established he might start focussing more on the story.
2.5 stars from me – solidly in the middle. Didn’t particularly like it, didn’t really dislike it....more
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 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....more
Percy Jackson was always going to be a hard act to follow, let alone top. To Riordan’s credit he manages the first goal but falls very very sho 4 Stars
Percy Jackson was always going to be a hard act to follow, let alone top. To Riordan’s credit he manages the first goal but falls very very short of the second. Heroes of Olympus, a new series set in the Percy Jackson world follows fast on the heels of the last series. At first it seemed almost too fast – only a few measly months have gone between the final showdown between Gods and Titans and already the next big threat is rising up, some deities just can’t catch a break! Riordan’s knowledge of Greek (and Roman!) mythology placated me somewhat there though, and it’s as fast paced and action packed as ever. Where it doesn’t fare so well is the new characters and the shift from first person to third-person limited narration. No Percy Jackson in this book, no charmingly hilarious oddball narration. Instead we get three new characters; Jason, Piper, and Leo who shift between third person point of view chapters – allowing us to witness just how vapid and boring two of their personalities are.
Jason and Piper are both practically cut out from the Big Book of Mary-Sue Heroes and Love Interests. He’s an amnesiac with a magical weapon and great destiny! She has eyes that change colour and is so beautiful she tries to hide it by cutting her hair with safety scissors! Together they will ignore their ‘best friend’, take little heed to their own lives, and spend paragraphs boring on and on to themselves about how awesome the other is! It says a lot about how good the rest of the book is that I can award 4 stars to a novel where I’m indifferent at best to two out of three of the primary characters. Leo, however, is pretty awesome. Not as awesome as Percy of course, but he’s got some fun and humour about him and he actually puts work into what he does rather than simply being conveniently brilliant (he’s brilliant as well of course, he’s one of a prophesied group of heroes, but there’s a sense of effort and actually trying that’s distinctly lacking from the other two).
It’s a problem exacerbated by the rotating third-person limited narration. If I had never had to listen to her thoughts Piper may have been quite interesting, the potential was certainly there; she appears a clever, rebellious, tomboyish sort of girl, with a decent knowledge of Greek mythology, as a Native American she’s also the first character to call out the term ‘half-blood’ and point out its use as a very real and hurtful racial slur. So far, so good. Step into her PoV, however, read her thoughts and you can see just how shallow her characterisation actually is. Her tomboyishness manifests as a snobby disdain of ‘popular’ and ‘fashionable’ girls (because no girls become popular from actually being nice you know! Maybe it’s cause I never went to a US highschool but I have never, never, understood the ‘mean girl’ trope) and of course the story responds by making all the popular fashionable girls she encounters into complete bitches who use their sexuality for power like the evil hobags they are while she feels self conscious every time she’s put in a dress or make up. Bleh. Her rebelliousness becomes her acting out to get her father’s attention (no problems there), but instead of actually shoplifting she just used her powers (which she didn’t know of) to ask for things, which people then gave her before calling the police once they regained their senses. See! She’s not a real theif, she asked, and she didn’t know she had magical powers she’s super-perfect and awesome and would never actually do something bad like steal! Fuck off. She’d have been a bit more interesting and less Sueish if she actually had stolen that car. And the Greek mythology knowledge – she can call up the long and hard to pronounce names of pretty obscure figures all from reading it up with her actor dad for a part. I call bull. Without being subjected to her vapid ‘it’s so bad that I almost died but the worst thing was that Jason doesn’t recognise me’ inner monologues I could have found her interesting I may even have been singing her praises! As it stands I’m kind of hoping she tries to charmspeak Clarisse and gets a proper beat down. This book needed more Clarisse.
Jason’s the same. Bland heroic heroes are never my favourites and I’m still conflicted over what I feel about his ‘mysterious’ Roman past. On one hand the existence of Roman gods has been established since the Janus made an appearance in the third Percy Jackson book. There was yet more foreshadowing in the fifth where a statue-come-to-life resents being mistaken for a Greek Goddess when she's Roman. But at the same time I feel something as big as a whole Roman mythology-themed demigod camp running parallel with Camp Half-Blood with each unaware of the other’s existence is just a bit much to shoehorn into the story now. The characters can tell me that Jason was off doing awesome things to help against the Titan’s while Percy was doing his thing until they’re blue in the face – I still can’t make myself believe it. Wonderful feats of Titan-killing that happen completely off-page do not make for a particularly compelling backstory. It’s like ‘hey, look at the new awesome hero. I know he hasn’t done anything yet and you've never heard of him but he’s totally awesome and just as good as Percy, maybe better!’. No. I am the reader and I will be the judge of that and he’s not. He lacks both the charisma and the ingenuity.
I really hope that the next book, which features Percy and two new heroes, will win me round to the Roman idea more though. Because I like it, it’s got potential, lots of it. I just don’t like Jason and don’t think the introduction was necessarily handled in the best way (though I totally get the dramatic and narrative reasons for doing it this way).
But I’ve been really negative! It’s only because I love it so much! If I didn’t love I wouldn’t critique! And much as I couldn’t care less about Jason or Piper, this was a wonderful children’s book. I wondered, a little, what threat Riordan was going to have to bring in to justify a second major prophecy getting started so soon after the last, but actually what he went with made total sense. The overarching villain is definitely an interesting one and the ‘smalltime’ enemies in this book include some of my all time favourite figures from Greek mythology. Allowing legendary humans, as well as monsters, to make appearances is probably going to be my favourite part of this series. Monsters are all well and good but Greek mythology is full of wonderful human vilainesses and husband-murderers as well (fingers crossed for Clytamnestra!). The story, at 552 pages is a lot longer than previous entries in the Percy Jackson series, mainly due to narrating for three separate characters rather than one, but actually it zips along at the same old pace and really is a very quick and easy read.
And Leo, poor forgotten Leo. Even in my own rant I haven’t mentioned him much. He’s no Percy, it’s true, but he’s definitely worth reading for and a great addition to the cast of characters at Camp Half-Blood. Which, almost perversely considering how much I disliked Jason and Piper, that was actually something this book managed way better than the Percy Jackson series ever did – the one thing I kept on ragging on Percy Jackson for not doing; it made Camp Half-Blood feel like it was peopled by real teenagers, not just background characters who came and went as the story required. So yay for the third-person narration in that respect!
Now if only Riordan could tighten it up a bit and make Jason and Piper a little less unreasonably obsessed with each other in the next book I may yet be a happy camper. It’ll be odd reading Percy from a third person perspective though…might take a bit of getting used to....more
Another three star read. I enjoyed it, I’ll read the next couple of sequels at least, but there was a lot that held me back from liking it more3 Stars
Another three star read. I enjoyed it, I’ll read the next couple of sequels at least, but there was a lot that held me back from liking it more. This is (mostly) more my fault than the book’s; which is, for the most part, a high quality action-adventure spy-story very much in the vein of a ‘teenage James Bond’ that has fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unfortunately I’ve never been that into the James Bond films, found Casino Royale to be a total snooze-fest, and have never had any inclination whatsoever to pick up an Ian Flemming book. These damning personal defects aside I would probably have gotten on with this book a lot better had I read it when it came out in 2000 (when I would have been eleven or twelve) – not just because I’d have been both less picky and in the right age bracket but because, only twelve years later, a lot of the premise comes off as absurdly dated.
This isn’t Horowitz’s fault of course – in 2000 many teenagers in the UK didn’t have their own mobile phones, 24-hour internet access was an incredible novelty, and a gift of a single computer to a school may well have been a big deal (my primary school replaced the library with its first computer room to celebrate the millennium – the bookshelves were moved to a wide corridor – before that we had a single computer in each class that we were never allowed to actually use). None of that is too unrealistic, but it feels it – and I still can’t come up with a reasonable explanation beyond ‘plot’ why Alex wasn’t equipped with a mobile phone along with the rest of his gadgets. It’s also so very, very, pre 9/11 that it almost breaks belief some of the things Alex can get away with without getting immediately shot dead by security forces. Again, not Horowitz’s fault and it's part of the genre to suspend disbelief at these things but it’s something I also can’t help but notice. That said the target audience of 8+ is not going to care or notice too much – except probably the mobile phone thing.
As I’ve probably given away the plot revolves around high-tech computer systems but otherwise it’s very James bond. There’s vehicle chases, near death experiences, dangerous wildlife being kept as pets, labyrinthine underground lairs, death traps, smuggling, and assassins. This book is chock full of action and I’ll say this for it – it does a much better job than most children's books in making you forget that Alex has to survive and fearing for the protagonists safety, at least until after the fifth near-death escape. If you’re after a jam-packed action-filled book that’s a nice easy read this definitely fits the bill. Where it fell down for me though was in also importing the dismissive sexism and xenophobic stereotypes that characterise the adult spy genre.
It’s not so much offensive as it is simply lazy – the assassin is Russian, the evil sidekick is a German woman, the bully during Alex’s training has a ‘funny foreign accent’ (though I expect we’ll be seeing him in future books as a goody), and the big-bad is a short, fat, ‘slimy‘ middle-eastern man with eyes like frogspawn who eats dog-meat. Better still his backstory involves an American family ‘rescuing’ him from his own poverty in Beirut and bringing him to London without giving a single fuck for the rest of his family. This probably wouldn’t bother me if I was a child but as an adult I am both more culturally aware than I was, and have seen these ingredients used so many times that I’m quite frankly bored with them. That the villain’s motivation is ‘I was a victim of racist bullying’ doesn’t really mitigate the whole lazy stereotyping that went into characterising him before and after. And then the sexism, again part of the genre but I have to ask – why? Why do action-adventure stories have to have only strong male characters and sideline women into purely maternal or ‘evil sidekick’ roles (thankfully no shoe-horned love interest here)? Why in a novel set in 2000 is the only reference to female spies ‘we have to send in someone who won’t be noticed [. . .] We were considering sending down a woman. She might be able to slip in as a secretary or receptionist’. Even the female in charge of the section only provides a ‘motherly’ role, fretting about Alex while her male partner is flat and emotionless, dedicated to the cause no matter the cost.
I’m not angry, I know it sounds it but honestly I’m not. I’m not even offended. I’m just tired. I know this book is essentially a tribute to James Bond but. . . it’s just predictable. Of course the female sidekick is German, the contract killer is Russian – they always are.
That said, and I know that’s come off as really negative sounding, I liked the book. It’s not a standout but I enjoyed it and I want to read the next few books as well. Alex has the potential to be an interesting character – I don’t think he quite got there in this book, he seemed way too detached and unaffected by his uncle’s death and made some really obviously stupid mistakes (and the bit of me that volunteers at Natural History museums totally resents a portuguese man-of-war being repeatedly refered to as a ‘jellyfish’), but he’s very fun to read about in the action scenes and as I said, the potential is there – I like that he’s not into the whole spy thing but just wants to be left alone.
So yeah. . . a good book, one that I’m sure lots of people who aren't me will love, but one that shares many of the traits that always make me feel excluded and dismissed by this genre. Hopefully I’ll enjoy the next book a bit more because, with a few improvements, this is a series I could really get into....more
Eeeee! (That’s my excited noise) How could I not pick up a book with a title that awesome? It’s been on my wishlist since it was first drawn t 5 stars!
Eeeee! (That’s my excited noise) How could I not pick up a book with a title that awesome? It’s been on my wishlist since it was first drawn to my attention, so naturally as soon as I spotted a copy in the bookshop I just had to buy it. And I am so, so, glad I did, and that I’m such a shallow reader easily swayed by a pretty cover and a wonderful title, because boy did this book live up to both! I do get the feeling that it’s probably one of those books that you either love or you feel distinctly ‘meh’ about, but for me it really worked. I found it a lovely, charming, clever little fairytale and a perfect book to wrap up my summer-holiday children’s book binge.
I haven’t read anything by Valente before but she’s definitely going on my list of authors to check out (in fact I’ve already ordered myself a couple of her earlier books). The writing, which so easily could have felt forced, overblown, or patronising, was just beautiful. It’s almost a book to be read aloud – and I would definitely recommend it as a bedtime-story read for children. The omniscient third person narrator frequently interrupts the story to explain, to reflect, to apologise, and to almost have a conversation with the reader. It’s a style that is so so hard to get right and that I’m always a bit sceptical of but is just pulled off to perfection here. And the ideas… Valente has one hell of an imagination. I absolutely loved her vision of Fairyland; it’s just brimming with original and unusual characters. Where it possibly falls down if you’re not immediately enamoured with the beautiful prose is that it’s slow to get to the point. For a little while after September steps out of her window and runs away to Fairyland things are a little confused, without any clearly defined plot beyond stumbling blindly around the strange setting. But the initial, seemingly random, encounters do in fact lead into a bigger story, and a pretty good one at that; with magic spoons, despotic dictators, and herds of wild bicycles. You’ve just got to be a bit patient before it unfolds.
If I had to compare this with other books it’s a little like a modern Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz. A young girl gets sent to a strange land where she meets many strange and non-human people and has many strange adventures. It’s a million times better written and more interesting than The Wizard of Oz though and has a million times more of an overarching plot tying it together than Alice in Wonderland (no disrespect to Alice which is a great book too). The character of September also feels a more fully fleshed out lead than either of those leads. She’s not too saccharine and sweet or unbearably precocious but there is something rather special about her never the less. She’s a practical, smart, determined girl who takes charge of her own adventures. She also isn’t remotely close to ‘perfect’ but grows and changes over the course of the story. Initially ‘somewhat heatless’ (all children start off heartless but grow hearts at different rates as they grow up) she originally doesn’t think twice about not explaining or saying goodbye to her parents but she does feel the niggling guilt throughout the story and by the end of the book she seems to have a very big heart indeed. But although she’s grown as a person this isn’t done through any of the usual sickening lectures or ‘special lessons’, just natural gradual character progression and reaction to the world about her. Despite the big fairy tale themes of friendship and love and bravery, this book never even comes close to ‘preachy’. And although September’s not quite like any twelve-year-old I know she feels real as a character (note: I know very few twelve-year-olds).
My favourite character though would have to be Ell or, to give him his proper name, A-Through-L the Wyverary. An adorably friendly and knowledgable (on any subject starting with A-L at least) Wyvern who claims to be half-library. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding him my favourite but he’s just such a wonderful creation and an absolute sweetheart.
It’s a very odd, rather whimsical, little book; one I’m not sure what I would have made of as a child but one I absolutely adore as a twenty-four-year-old. It’s definitely a children’s book, no doubt about that, but I do think it contains something for pretty much any age group. I wouldn’t have appreciated the narrator’s humour quite so much or picked up as much on some of the themes or references when I was younger, and I’ll probably pick up more on a few others if I’m ever a parent. It’s a book that can be enjoyed, I think, on many different levels.
It was an absolute joy to read and a book I can definitely see myself coming back to and rereading during my ‘downs’. All that’s left to say really is bring on book two in January. Can’t wait....more
‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of th 4 Stars
‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress’. From the very first, dreadful, sentence of this book, I expected to hate it. First-person, present-tense. There is no style of writing more designed to irritate. It puts one in mind of bad radio dramas and that slow, deliberate, patronising voice people use when reading poetry. So, it’s to Collins’ credit that, by the halfway point, I had ceased to really notice how annoying the narrative voice was and had become totally sucked into the story. Instead of hating The Hunger Games, I actually rather enjoyed it.
Before even picking it up, I had mixed-to-low expectations. I had some friends who loved it, but it had been hyped to the extent it could never live up to the praise, and then I had some friends who really really detested it. So I went in with the notion that it was probably just one of those average books that isn’t great, but isn’t terrible either, just one of those books that some people just inexplicably love to the bafflement and irritation of others. And going in with that preconception probably helped a lot. I didn’t expect great things of this book so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I think if I had bought into the ‘best book ever’ hype my start rating would be significantly lower.
Because it’s not the best book ever, not even close. Aside from the first-person, present-tense irritation, the love triangle is stupid, the plot is contrived, the characters are flat and underdeveloped, and the world-building is rubbish. But what it is is a fun holiday read, the sort of book I could just enjoy by the side of a swimming pool in France after slogging through 900 pages of Tom Jonesanything to say).
The Hunger Games is a teen novel set in a dystopian future version of North America (what the rest of the world is doing, we never know) made up of 12 'districts' that provide all the raw materials and industry, ruled over by the ‘capitol’, where the president lives and everyone dresses like they’re extras from a low budget sci-fi movie. The titular Hunger Games are a yearly competition between the districts, and a way for the capitol to keep them all under their control; a 24-child fight to the death match with one girl and boy between 12 and 18 being chosen from each district to compete to kill everybody else. The logistics of how this actually stops uprisings rather than sparking them, I won't even question because that’s just part of the premise and you’ve really got to accept that if you want to enjoy the book at all.
The hero, Katniss Everdeen, has spent most of her childhood illegally poaching game with a bow and arrow to feed her family. When her twelve year old sister is selected to represent District 12 in the games, Katniss immediately volunteers in her place. The male tribute for district 12, however, Peeta Malark, is determined to make the already difficult job of killing 23 teenagers on national TV even more difficult by declaring his love for her and getting pissy when she has more important things to deal with than his stupid feelings.
Yeah, I didn’t like Peeta, I will never like Peeta, and no, I don’t think Katniss should get with Gale either. It’s a shame, because Peeta started off quite well, he was a nice, non-macho, non-abusive teenage love interest with an interesting story of how they first met. If Collins had stuck with that I’d honestly be all for it. What’s more romantic than a guy helping out a starving girl on the street from the goodness of his heart and then taking an interest and growing to love her? Ok, lots of things. But what’s definitely not more romantic is the ’I've loved you since we were five years old’ line or the ‘my father fancied your mother, but she fell in love with someone else’ backstory. It’s cliche, it’s creepy, it makes the character really flat, and it’s just bad writing. That was the point where I almost threw my book in the swimming pool, and no matter what Peeta does there is no going up in my estimation after that. he's doomed. I hate him. I am not a romantic sort of girl and Peeta makes me want to vomit whenever he talks about his love for Katniss. You don't love her Peeta! You don't fucking know her!
Katniss herself though? Pretty cool but fairly generic. I would have liked her to be a bit more detached, more mercenary and manipulative - stop giggling like a child when her stylists dress her up in sacrificial gowns and gushing over the food, save some of the angst about Peeta's feelings and the doubt over her own and concentrate more on the thing that's important: Prim, the games, and not dying.
It doesn't help that all the action sequences in this book are completely contrived so as to make her and Peeta look heroic. Katniss only ever kills in self defence or to avenge a friend. If Peeta kills at all I don't think it's ever shown. The other tributes are barely characterised at all, some don’t even have names. But this is a book about children being forced to kill each other for entertainment. Where’s the moral ambiguity if you make Katniss ‘good’ with a capital G and most of the other children trying to survive either batshit-lrevels of ‘evil’ or not important enough to name? I know the story is told from Katniss’ point of view, that some of the kids really are evil little murder machines, that the story is bound to be biased in her favour, and that the sequels do portray a more complex morality, but just one kill where it wasn’t strictly necessary to survive. Where it wasn't emotionally driven… where she gave into the rules of the game and did what she had to do to win… Just one! It would have gone a really long way. And given Katniss something to really think about and feel guilty for in the next books.
All in all though, a fun book and just the sort of read I was in the mood for at the time. In fact, stranded on holiday later with two books left that I wasn’t enjoying very much, I marched straight down to the english bookshop and picked up books 2 and 3. It might not be great writing, but it's a very more-ish plot....more
I really enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect by any means and a lot of it felt quite predictable but it’s aimed at younger children than most o 4 stars
I really enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect by any means and a lot of it felt quite predictable but it’s aimed at younger children than most of the books I’ve been reading this year and it’s got a nice cosy childhood feel to it. It’s also in a genre I tend to like – fairy tale mash-ups. It seems you can’t escape them at the moment what with Once Upon a Time (started strong, very quickly got too boring to watch) and Grimm (started dull, got stronger as the series went on) as well as the flood of mediocre Snow White and Red Riding Hood films in recent years trying to be the next ‘big thing’. People seem to have cottoned on that they don’t have to pay copyright charges on fairy tales and are milking it for what it’s worth.
For me though my affection for the genre started when I was very small with Each Peach Pear Plum – a classic of the ‘read aloud to your baby’ picture books – and The Jolly Postman, or Other People's Letters and The Jolly Christmas Postman - a brilliant interactive pop-up series for young readers that I honestly cannot recommend highly enough for people with young kids. Of course there’s the retellings - Revolting Rhymes and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs were practically required reading in primary school and they’re both great – but for me it’s always been about the shared-world thing where characters from different and sometimes very disparate fairy tales live alongside and interact with each other. Jasper Fforde does a similar thing for and adult audience with his Nursery Crime series and uses out-of-copyright literary characters for the same purpose in his Thursday Next series (both brilliant – Thursday Next more so than Nursery Crime). And anyone who’s been reading my blog/following me on goodreads for any length of time knows I’m totally hooked on Bill Willingham’s Fables comics which transports fairy tale characters to modern-day New York. So…how does Michael Buckley’s work compare? And is that even a fair question?
Considering the different age groups all those books at I’d say not – but it’s something I couldn’t help doing as I read. There were a lot of superficial similarities to works I’d read before – particularly Fables – to the extent it sometimes did feel like Fables for kids. There were fairy tale characters living a secret existence in New York state, Jack the giant-killer as a pretty unheroic but friendly wastrel, and Prince Charming as the mayor is an impoverished but ambitious royal who’s married and divorced almost every princess there is. But these are mostly are similarities stemming from the source material itself – once you decide to use fairytale characters it’s natural to combine all the Prince Charming’s into one character, and once you’ve done that you do then have to account for how many times he’s married. The vaguely similar personalities of Jack I’d attribute to the same thing – tell his story without the assumption that he’s the ‘hero’ and he becomes a lazy and uncaring kid who’d rather take the easy way out than work hard to help his family and eventually becomes a housebreaker and robber (and that’s just if we ignore the giant killing). It’s striking, and whichever order I read the books I’d be noticing the similarities, but I won’t hold that against this book – especially as I actually vastly prefer this version of Jack and the target audience should probably not be reading Fables in the first place and so won't have that comparisson in their minds.
So putting aside comparisons with similar books, how did I like it? Well enough. It’s not exactly going up on my list of ‘favourite books ever’ but I enjoyed it and thought it was a clever and entertaining little book with some very funny moments and interesting characters. I want to see more of Mr. Canis for certain, I enjoyed Granny Relda, Jack, and Puck, and got a few giggles out of King Arthur being concerned about the state of his car and the three little pigs working as policemen – nice pun there. I got a bit fed up on the emphasis of certain character’s ‘thick english accent’ and making him say Britishisms where they don’t really fit (who the fuck asks for bubble and squeak for breakfast? It’s horrible at any time of day, but breakfast?) but I can overlook it.
Now onto the main characters! Little Daphne I loved, but Sabrina’s personality – and the story is told from Sabrina’s third person-limited perspective – does make it a bit hard to get instantly into the story. Not only is she a cynic for the first half of the book but she’s also a very guarded and defensive child who doesn’t like to listen to anybody else about anything – a bit like book 5 Harry Potter but without the capslocky shoutingness. It makes perfect sense of course, she’s a child who feels the hurt of being abandoned by her parents and has had to play the role of mum and dad to her little sister through several different abusive and neglectful foster families – but it can come off as ‘high and mighty’. (Coincidentally I really liked the touch that they had resigned themselves to the idea that their parents had abandoned them rather than trying to rationalise it as ‘something must have happened to them, they wouldn’t abandon me’). Sabrina’s character development is a big theme of the story of course and she does get gradually better, but if you don’t like her much to begin with it might make the book harder to enjoy.
The story itself is good fun with a nice amount of action with lots of odd little fairy tale quirks to it – chase scenes on flying carpets etc. The twists and turns were a bit predictable – but then I’m twenty-four, I would expect to be able to predict most children’s stories by now, at seven I’m almost certain I’d have been surprised by them. Buckley also manages to pull off the start of an intriguing looking metaplot concerning exactly what has happened to the girl’s parents as well as neatly and satisfactorily tying up the novel’s stand-alone plot.
It’s very much the ‘first book of a series’ with a lot of time spent introducing the different elements and characters, but it’s the first book of what looks to be a very fun and entertaining series. I’ll certainly be ordering the second one from the library soon anyway....more
So continuing on my fantasy and children’s fiction binge – summer is the one season where I use the library regularly for lightweight, fun books I donSo continuing on my fantasy and children’s fiction binge – summer is the one season where I use the library regularly for lightweight, fun books I don’t necessarily want to buy. Percy Jackson is one of those very popular series where it’s practically a requirement that everyone under a certain age has to have read it. I’m not under that age. Though I had heard a lot of talk bout these books and, due to the Greek mythology aspect, had been half-planning to check them out for a while, it took one of my best friends all but ordering me to pick up the first book for me to get round to doing anything about it. And boy, am I glad she gave me that much needed boot to the arse. It’s probably a bit premature to judge the whole series but, based on the first book, these would have been five-star instant favourites with little-me. If only they had been published a decade earlier!
Percy Jackson, protagonist and narrator, is a ‘troubled kid’ – ADHD, dyslexia, a habit of constantly getting into fights, emotionally abused by his step-father – who suddenly finds out that not only are the Greek Gods real, but that one of them (though I won’t say which) is his father. Also real: every single monster from Greek myth and legend – and they’re all after him. After a bit of time in the safe sanctuary of Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods, he gets more bad news: Zeus’ lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is suspect number one. To prevent a war between the gods, Percy must undertake a quest back out into the monster-filled world and retrieve the lightning bolt himself.
It’s the sort of fun nonsense I would have adored as a kid and not only is it a fun yarn, but it’s written intelligently. The narration, as you would exect from a book aimed at children and told by a twelve-year-old dyslexic, is simple and easy to read. It also does a damn good job of portraying Percy’s character and emphasising that ‘troubled’ and low grades doesn’t mean ‘stupid’. What especially won me over to him was that Riordan didn’t do that thing where the main character knows nothing about the setting (however much they really should) and has to have everything explained for him. Percy may be new to the whole demigod thing but he knows at least the basics of Greek mythology and is able to provide reader-exposition as well as many of the side characters. I also really liked the touch that his (and the other demigods) dyslexia was because his first language was meant to be Ancient Greek. In short he seems competent and he’s likable and complex enough that when certain god-like powers start to kick in I wasn’t instantly thinking ‘what a Mary Sue’.
The Greek mythology, as well, is well handled. Things are played with and changed about but there’s an obvious understanding and respect for the ‘original’ myths that I think even little-me would have appreciated (and little-me was such a pedantic little shit she refused to watch Disney’s Hercules when she was 9 because the trailers showed him riding Pegasus). I liked most of the updates and changes here and I really liked that, though several ‘obvious’ monsters were used, some lesser known ones that children might not be familiar with – such as the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey – also found their way in as well. Little-me might possibly have something to say about Athena having children but, as I said, little-me was a pedantic shit. And Athena totally had the hots for Odysseus anyway so I can buy her eventually deciding to stick the middle finger up to the ‘virgin goddess’ depiction.
The story itself isn’t too remarkable – it’s basically an American roadtrip with lots of run-ins with Greek monsters and a very foreshadowed twist. But it’s well told, enjoyable, occasionally very funny, and sets up an interesting arc for the rest of the series. I’ll be checking out the next couple of books from the library very shortly, I think....more