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...more 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.(less)
Mwaha! After 24 years I finally managed to finish The Hobbit! And I enjoyed it a lot more than I though I would.
To explain my apprehensions a bit more: I tried to read The Hobbit many, many times in my childhood and each time utterly hated it and failed miserably. I think several of the very numerous creases and damage to the cover of my family’s copy may even have come from me hurling it away in disgust. What annoyed me most though, what really, annoyed me was always that it was a story I should have absolutely loved – all the plot ingredients were there; quests, dragons, dwarves, goblins, treasure, all that fantasy stuff I used to practically live and breathe – but I just simply couldn’t get over the fucking tone of the book. I felt patronised by the narrator, annoyed by the constant outbursts of song, and generally talked down to. In fact, when I was about five, I very stroppily insisted that my parents never tried to play the audiobook in the car ever again (it was a staple for long journeys at the time) because, although the bits with the trolls and the goblins and the dragon were great, I was fed up of hearing how ‘Bilbo Baggins wished he was back in his hobbit hole. Not for the last time!’ repeated every few minutes.
So, despite loving the basic plot and absolutely adoring Lord of the Rings, I'd never managed to finish The Hobbit and was very, very apprehensive about giving it another go – but all the same I really wanted to at least try before I went to see the film. And actually I’m really fucking glad that I did, cause read with adult eyes I actually really liked it (though I confess to still being annoyed by the songs).
As I’m sure everyone will know, The Hobbit tells the story of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and his many wonderful aventures after becoming reluctantly roped into helping the least-prepared band of dwarves ever reclaim their treasure from the dragon who ruined their homeland. It also (again as everyone knows) serves as a prequel of sorts to The Lord of the Rings, though is very different in tone. Written for a younger audience it’s more episodic in structure and fun in nature than its sprawling sequel. The quest to recover the dwarvish treasure serves as an overarching plot but, for the first half of the book at least, the journey to the Lonely Mountain where the dragon lives is made up of a series of random encounters and seemingly unrelated adventures. More than being a fun adventure story, however, there’s also a strong character arc (for Bilbo anyway) and a surprisingly mature finale. For a rather slim book there’s a hell of a lot happens and, save for the stupid songs, there’s almost never a dull moment. So although I hated it as a child I have to admit that it’s not at all hard to see why it is such a very beloved children’s classic.
The first part, where the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf have to overcome obstacle after obstacle to reach the dragon’s lair is still probably my favourite – I’ve always been a sucker for ‘journey stories’ and all the really memorable incidents happen here, the trolls, the goblins, Gollum. But it’s also where the tone is at it’s most irritating – the ‘not for the last time!‘s are frequent (though thankfully not as frequent as I seemed to recall) and the Rivendell elves who sing the ‘O! tra-la-la-lally/here down in the valley!/ha ha!’ song deserve thirteen dwarven axes to the fucking head, but the Gollum episode alone makes up for that. Gollum is, quite simply, the absolute best thing about Middle Earth – full stop. I loves him, I loves him, I loves him.
The rest of the story never quite reaches the brilliance that is Riddles in the Dark where Gollum appears, but it’s still pretty damn good and, as the journey portion concludes and the company realise they actually have to face the dragon, Smaug, you begin to really see the influence that sagas and epic poetry had on Tolkien’s writing. At least one episode with Smaug is lifted almost directly from Beowulf (maybe more, I’m only partway through Beowulf at the moment) and the characters prove to be far more flawed and selfish than you normally find in the heroes of children’s books. It turns the fun romp through the forests and mountains of the first half into something more poignant and mature. I’m not entirely sure I would have got on with this section so well when I was younger – I was normally asleep by this point when we played the audiobook in the car and I probably wasn’t used to protagonists turning out to be dickish and random people who had only just been introduced doing important deeds that would normally be reserved for the heroes – but I liked it and it is, I think, one of the things that sets The Hobbit apart from similar children’s adventure stories.
And onto the downsides. Again, I found the songs and poems (with the exception of Gollum’s riddles) annoying, far too frequent, and mostly unneccessary. The last chapter alone had three songs in it – none of them needed. I guess there must be people out there who like them but I’m really not one. They were shorter than I remembered though, which was something at least. The amount of stuff per page ratio also meant that very few of the characters apart from Bilbo ever got that much focus or do much for themselves. The thirteen dwarves are, for the most part, completely interchangeable and there seems no reason for half of them to be there except to bulk up the numbers so that Bilbo can make the group a ‘lucky fourteen’. Thorin is the leader and a bit of a pompous dickwad, Kili and Fili are the youngest and therefore get all the shitty jobs, Balin is friendlier with Bilbo than most of the others and Bombur is constantly refered to and berated for being fat enough for two. And that’s literally all the character traits I can remember. I think Oin and Gloin light a candle at one point but I can’t remember them doing anything else even remotely useful. It’s the nature of this type of epic adventure storytelling of course to focus almost solely the main character (few of Odysseus’s sailors or Beowulf’s companions are even given names for example) but it does make them feel rather like dead weight a lot of the time. Combine that with the fact they’re also the most incompetent bunch of adventurers ever, constantly in need of rescuing and never managing even a single thing for themselves, and I feel rather sorry for the dwarves. They clearly didn’t know (or stop to consider) just what their quest actually entailed. They’re so clueless about their planned adventure that they pack musical instruments but no proper weapons! I can’t help but feel that Gandalf really should have given the poor things a better briefing.
Overall though a very enjoyable little book. The bits that annoyed me as a child still annoyed me as an adult though not to anything near the same extent. I do wish there had been a bit less singing and a bit more of certain characters in it, but I liked it all a hell of a lot more than I was expecting to. A pretty solid 4 stars.(less)
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)
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...more 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.(less)
Although this book is the first book of its own series, it contains some pretty big spoilers for events in its parent series, Fables. In fact I...more 4 Stars
Although this book is the first book of its own series, it contains some pretty big spoilers for events in its parent series, Fables. In fact I’m not sure how someone trying to read this series without having read Fables first would be able to get into it, as it does rely quite a bit on knowing the character’s backstories already. But I enjoyed it, not as much as I was hoping, but a lot more than I was fearing after the last Cinderella book. It’s not the best, and I battled for a long time with myself over whether it should really be a 3 or 4 star read, but in the end, despite a few misgivings, I decided to be generous. Definitely worth checking out if you’re following Fables already, it has the same sort of feel to it – something the previous spinoff, Jack of Fables didn’t – but I’m not sure I’d recommend that someone new to the Fables universe starts here.
Fairest is, or is meant to be, a female-led spinoff from the main series, taking its name from the idea that with all the fairytale characters now living together there are lots and lots of ‘fairest of them all’s. I say ‘meant to be’ however because for the first half of the ‘Wide Awake‘ storyline it seemed a very standard male-led story with Ali Baba as the roguish hero and the second story ‘Lamia‘ is an entirely male led ‘film noir’ detective story. I liked both stories, but this is definitely something I want to see done better in future books – females taking leading roles in their own stories rather than being either love interests or the motivation for men’s adventures.
Still,as I said, I liked both stories. Wide Awake, the longer of the two takes up 6 of the 7 issues collected in this volume and is focussed, as you might expect from the title, on Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty), last seen in the main comics in an enchanted sleep with Lumi, the Snow Queen, being carted away by goblins. The story opens with Ali Baba (of forty thieves fame), accompanied by an exposition-loving bottle imp, breaking into the goblin camp and waking Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. Unfortunately with Briar Rose awake her spell breaks and wakes the Snow Queen up as well and the Snow Queen is (or was) a serious baddy. I have to say I felt she was a little ‘de-fanged’ here, which was a bit disappointing. And, though I liked it, the story seemed both to drag on and to be a little rushed in places. There is an awful lot of exposition on Briar Rose’s origins but very little of it is new information – the fairies who blessed/cursed her now have specific names, but actually it follows most versions or the ‘original story’ too closely to surprise anyone and I found the idea that Briar Rose had never heard the story before kind of baffling. But while that stuff seemed to slow things down the ‘present day’ stuff seemed rather rushed, making the relationships between the characters and their motivations seem very shallow. Limitation of the format, I guess, and the difference in reading these issues bound together in a single trade vs reading in monthly instalments. Despite a few problems it certainly had a nice Fables-y feel to it though, a much more promising start than the last spinoff I read.
The second story, Lamia, I’m still conflicted about. It’s a good little story, it’s got a nice art style to it as well, but it has some pretty huge implications for characters in the main comic and on how the reader now has to perceive those characters both going forward and with hindsight. And I’m just not sure I want to see those implications played out, I liked the reading I already had of them. But I guess I’ll just wait and see, it could turn out to be amazing.
A solid start to the series, not the most welcoming for new readers but I guess that’s not really the intention. What I would like to see going forward though is a lot more ‘female led stories’ and less ‘stories about men thinking about women’. With the title and publicity promoting this as a series about female characters I would like those female characters to have more agency, more varied goals and ambitions, and not to be called ‘bitches’ so often by the other characters they share the page with. And since each story is apparently going to have a different writer, I would like to see more women writing and drawing these stories too, writing them without male love interests and drawing them without ‘male gaze’ fanservice. I like Bill Willinghams writing on Fables, I liked most of the art in this book (though I couldn’t work out what was happening in the action scenes) but I won’t lie that I am worried this series won’t live up to the awesomeness that it could be if it continues to be so male dominated.(less)
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 don...moreSo 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.(less)
‘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...more 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.(less)
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...more 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.(less)
In many ways this book is very similar to another I’ve read this summer; both are European-inspired fantasy, both first-person narratives of an...more3 stars
In many ways this book is very similar to another I’ve read this summer; both are European-inspired fantasy, both first-person narratives of an older man looking back on his youth, both main characters are royal bastards with magical powers looked down upon by their contemporaries and more at home with servants, and both go on to use skills and cleverness, even more than their natural magic, to become invaluable weapons and support to their royal patron. The difference is, however, that The Crystal Cave is pretty rubbish, while Assassin’s Apprentice is very good. So why then only 3 stars? Well, quite simply it was one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ books – I enjoyed it very much when I was reading it but every time I put it down it just didn’t have the ‘grab’ factor to make me want to pick it back up again straight away. And without that ‘grab’ factor I don’t think I can really award it 4 stars or above.
And there were other factors as well that led to reduced stars.To be honest, this book and I didn’t quite hit it off right from the start. On the very first page in fact, after the extract from the ‘history of the setting’ textbook which prefaces each chapter, I almost hurled my book across the room with a dramatic ‘Noooooooooo!‘ when I saw that the first line was ‘My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip‘. A whole 400 plus page book in first-person present tense? Say it ain’t so! Thankfully, reading on a couple of pages proved it wasn’t so as the narrator slipped back into telling his story in the past tense. Even so, it was an unpleasant scare and one that probably affected my enjoyment of the early parts of the book more than it should have done.
But I got past that and, by the end, I was really enjoying the book. Fitz is an interesting character, a little slow at times perhaps, and unusually prone to having people just reveal important facts when he’s around, but interesting and fairly realistic and sympathetic in his flaws and concerns. Other characters…Verity I quite fancy actually. As a middle sibling I think I have a lot of sympathy for the second son, always overlooked in favour of his brother, trying to come to terms with the inevitable comparisons and do his best despite not feeling adequate. Burrich…I believe I was meant to like, or at least grow to like him. But I didn’t. Not that I hated him either; I could see all the reasons why I should like him and why he was a complex character but it all seemed so obviously designed to make me like him that in the end I just felt a bit ‘bleh’ ambivalent about him. And that’s a fault I found with the characters all the way through actually. While the good guys were not perfect (the main character’s training to be a killer after all) they were notably sympathetic while all the bad guys were unambiguously evil, untalented, petty, jealous and vindictive with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. All of which made the final confrontation rather predictable and unsurprising. Even the reveal had me going ‘well yeah, how could you not have worked that out for yourself already?’. It didn’t help that this plotline was rather rushed, being pushed into and then resolved in, only the last few chapters.
While Assassins Apprentice is a very good introduction to the world of the ‘Six Duchies’, the key character’s that inhabit it, and the overarching plot for the whole series, it fell down a little as a self-contained story. It’s the first part of a three-book ‘biography’, and it reads that way; the majority of the page count is spent on Fitz growing up and the experiences that effect his development, so much so that the final conflict comes off as rather rushed and forced, having only been a very minor thread for the first four fifths of the story.
But that’s not all a bad thing. The overarching story of external threat being set up for the series as a whole is much more interesting than the almost cliché political scheming for power that this first book concludes with. Had the story had more of a single-book plot focussing more on what became the eventual climax of this book, I would probably have read it as a standalone and not been fussed about picking up the next in the series – but the mystery of the Red Ships and the sense that the shit’s going to really hit the fan in some nasty, scary, and sinister ways in the next couple of books has me hooked.
So overall this was a book I enjoyed and, while I didn’t love it, I can see why my friend who recommended it to me does. As someone who read a lot of fantasy (both good and totally horrendous) when I was a child and teenager, a lot of the elements did feel like stuff I’d ‘read a million times before’ and that probably did affect my enjoyment. But the characters and the larger set up for the next books outweighed the familiarity of the main conflict in this one. The rest of the trilogy is definitely going on my list of books to get out of the library and I expect to enjoy them very much. After that though…I probably won’t bother with picking up any of Robin Hobb’s other books unless those two wow me.(less)
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...more 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.(less)
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-...more3 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.(less)
Read a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall s...moreRead a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall star rating: 3.5
A Study in Scarlet - 3 stars
There are some truly brilliant parts of this novel, the growing relationship between Holmes and Watson, the interactions between Holmes and the police, the deductive reasoning that sees Holmes pulling solutions almost from thin air, the mystery itself...Why then only three stars? Well... once the mystery is solved – at around the halfway point - all those good enjoyable things that one reads a Holmes story for disappear and the narrative shifts into a third person account of the murderer’s backstory explaining his motives and relationship with his victims.
It’s a jarring change and not really a very welcome one. After spending the first half of the book invested in the relationship between Holmes and Watson and being fascinated by the correct conclusions Holmes could leap to based on almost nothing, I didn’t particularly care to get invested in this second set of characters. The most explanation of motive I needed was a quick monologue from the murderer summarising the key points – not a multi-chapter epic of lost love. But a multi-chapter story-within-a-story was what I got, and it simply didn’t quite work. The third person narrative seemed awkward and ill-fitting with the rest of the book, which reads as a personal account told through the eyes of Dr Watson. If the Holmes canon is meant to be written by Dr Watson, then this section doesn’t quite fit – the information is a bit too detailed for someone who wasn’t there, even if they have received a second-hand account, and the tone is completely different from Watson’s bluff, amiable style of writing. I kept asking myself where this omnipotent narrator had come from and wondering when we could get back to Holmes and Watson.
It didn’t help that none of the characters in this story-within-the-story were very interesting. There was a typical older mentor figure, his adopted daughter Lucy, and a rough handsome young hunter, all felt rather sketched in and none of the other characters were fleshed out even enough to be worth mentioning. The father was fatherly; the daughter was one of those annoying perky orphan kids who say things like ‘Oh! but why didn’t you tell me we were going to die? We can join mother then’ but eventually grows up into the most beautiful woman ever whilst still preserving her childish innocence and ‘charm’ (I use that term loosely); and the hunter was rough, young and handsome and well…you can totally see where that story is going, right? Insta-love! That’s right! Don’t you just love that trope? It’s all very disappointing and predictable, especially as the reader already knows what has to happen and already knows that Doyle is a much, much, better writer than this who can actually write fully developed characters because we’ve just cut away from them to read this second-rate part.
I’ll be fair on Doyle though. This was his first Sherlock Holmes book and it didn’t actually receive any real attention until his short stories were already a hit and he had solidified his style and characters a bit more. When it’s good it’s very good, and he does learn from this mistake in future books. Dodgy flashbacks and inaccurate portrayals of Mormonism aside, it’s worth reading for Sherlock Holmes alone – the mystery is just icing on the cake. He’s a wonderfully real character, even as he manages almost inhuman feats of observation and deduction. He has his flaws – a rather superior attitude being the major one and very patchy knowledge on anything that doesn’t pertain to his own narrow interests in solving crime for another. He’s not ‘perfect’, he’s as occasionally frustrating and annoying as someone with superior skills really is but he is amazingly charismatic. (Watch as these traits change until he becomes a caricature of himself in future stories though).
Now that many of his methods have been adopted both by the police and fictional detectives, you might think he would have lost some of his unique appeal – but I don’t think he has. The style of detective fiction may have shifted to ‘show the reader all the clues and see if they can work it out’, but Sherlock’s cold, calculated analysis of clues the reader (and Watson) weren’t even aware of until he mentions them, are still a joy to wonderful to read.
So despite the low rating I really do think this is a worthwhile read. Just remember though; they do get better! (And then worse...)
The Sign of the Four - 3.5 stars
A much more satisfying read/listen than A Study in Scarlet and one that seems to have learnt from the truly dire mistake of that story. Whilst there is a flashback here to the antagonist’s past and the motivations for his actions, it’s a lot shorter told as a confession – with all the bias and slant to be expected in first person narration – and fits in almost seamlessly with the style of the rest of the story. Also in its favour is the fact that the backstory is a lot more interesting in its own right. But there’s a whole mystery to solve before we get to that part so I’ll backtrack towards the beginning.
The Sign of the Four opens with the introduction – and actually one of the few mentions – of Sherlock Holmes cocaine habit and exploration into his psychology. It’s one of the things I love about Holmes that I don’t get with my otherwise beloved Poirot – he’s not just a thinking-machine but a complex person. He’s a man of extremes and, if he was non-fictional and alive today would probably be diagnosed with a serious form of mood disorder; if there’s an interesting crime he’ll be in the middle of a rush of activity but as soon as it’s solved he can flip, in an instant to lethargy and (then legal) drug abuse. At the start of the story he’s been in this lethargic, melancholy state for several months. Holmes is too clinically detached a character for him to be very likable or relatable on a personal level – even as someone who suffers from depression myself – but it does make him a more interesting and human character to read about than the earlier version in A Study in Scarlet.
Following a pattern that becomes relatively common in the short stories Watson does his best to get Holmes out of this funk by prompting several small examples of Holmes’ deductive genius – that Watson had gone to a specific place earlier in the day, the family history of Watson’s pocket watch etc. etc. These mainly serve to either show or remind the reader of Holmes’ skill and competence before we get to the real mystery, and it works – though I have to say I do get a bit tired of the ‘this type of mud is only found in one place!’ solutions as they do seem a bit of a cheat and I don’t always agree with Holmes that his explanation is the only one, even if it is the most likely. However, it is only with the arrival of Mary Morstan and her strange story of her father, who disappeared several years ago, and the anonymous pearls she started receiving several years later, that Holmes snaps out of his lethargy and starts getting interested.
Here again, you can see Doyle developing a framework used in later stories – the odd but seemingly but non-criminal story, that leads to something much darker and nastier than it first appears once untangled. Not that a mysteriously disappearing dad isn’t pretty dang dark, but that it isn’t a straight up simple crime such as being called to a murder scene – detective work needs to be done to even discover the crime in the first place. It’s a more complex, and arguably more interesting, device than the relatively straight forward plot to A Study in Scarlet and has the benefit of a more emotional core in trying to find the truth for a living character than A Study in Scarlet’s quest to identify the murderer of a character only introduced as a corpse. Of course Holmes gets the basics in about five minutes flat but it takes a while longer for the full story to be revealed, by which time the character’s have themselves a real crime to deal with and we get to the meat of the story.
And the meat of the story…well it sounds almost Robert Louis Stevenson/’boys own adventure’ in places; wooden legs, stolen treasure, hidden murders, and exotic weapons. It’s got action and adventure tropes in spades – there’s even a chase sequence! But the mystery itself well… Holmes sums it up best himself when he says that normal everyday crimes that offer no distinctive clues are harder to solve than the big ones with lots of unusual elements are. And here there are so many clues; footprints, exotic weapons, poisoned darts, the motif of a man with a wooden leg. Holmes is hardly drawing his conclusions from small inconsequential elements – the basic story (ignoring specific backstory elements only the villain would know) is practically written over the crime scene for anyone with eyes and ears to draw conclusions from. But, of course, the police and Watson are both baffled,
The backstory, when we get to it, though, is fascinating – perhaps more so to me because it focusses on a period of colonial history that I’ve studied; the India Mutiny of 1857. Even if you know nothing about it though it’s a more wonderful and exciting backdrop than Mormon Utah, and there’s a lot more going on than a few blokes all fancying the same girl. There are some, unpleasant, elements of exoticism and Victorian racial theory however – one apparently universally bloodthirsty and violent tribe is described as ‘naturally hideous’ by an anthropology textbook and ‘monstrous’ in appearance by the narrator. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and remember the time period if you find yourself being too annoyed. But there’s also an, admittedly not entirely sympathetic, depiction of Sikhs as being worth a white man’s loyalty that redeems it slightly (many Sikhs fought alongside the British in putting down the mutiny and they were favoured by the Victorian colonial regime set up afterwards). It’s a dark and brutal chapter of colonial/Indian history though that works as a perfect backdrop to the crime and sets a much better and more atmospheric tone for the whole book than is ever achieved in A Study in Scarlet.
This book, as a whole, is simply more grown up in every way than its predecessor; the narrative issues have been ironed out, more humanity has been given to the characters, the tone is much more consistent, and there’s an emotional heart to the story. Now I don’t actually rate this emotional heart particularly highly or find it remotely necessary for this type of book – it consists of Watson rather fancying the female client and if there’s one thing Doyle isn’t good at, it’s romance – but it succeeds far better than the romantic insta-love storyline in A Study in Scarlet. This is a lot to do with the fact that we’re privy to Watson’s thoughts and understand his bias but mainly because Mary is a fundamentally more interesting, complex, and less annoying character than Lucy ever was. It may not be my favourite thread of the storyline but it doesn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the rest of the book.
It’s not a ‘perfect’ Holmes story – but the elements of the character and storytelling technique are still being introduced and developed. However you can see here, far more than in the first Sherlock Holmes book, why the Holmes stories took off the way they did.
Random almost unrelated recommendation!The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman – a victorian-set mystery novel that also features the India Mutiny as a key element of the backstory. Aimed at children/teenagers but an enjoyable read that features both a pretty awesome female protagonist and a female villain who isn’t a femme fatale.
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...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.(less)
How good did the blurb sound? A detective novel that takes place in Communist China! Unfortunately, and despite almost every other person I k...more 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.(less)