Friday, February 25, 2011
The first of the E's and one of the better known works of recent fantasy.
Pawn of Prophecy is the first volume in the Belgariad and came out in 1983. It caused an instant stir when it hit the market. The Belgariad was a little unusual in that it contained 5 volumes not 3, although that may have been a publisher initiative to make more money out of the reading public.
It's been criticised as being derivative of Lord of the Rings, but in this case, as in others, it seems that saying a work is inspirired or influenced by Tolkien's ground breaking epic means that it is derivative. At the heart of it Pawn of Prophecy is a coming of age quest adventure.
Garion is a somewhat clueless young farm boy who grows up on a remote holding (Faldor's Farm), he is raised by the farm's cook, a lady he knows as Aunt Pol. Another influence on young Garion is Mister Wolf; a rogueish old story teller who visits Faldors from time to time. As it appears that a dangerous shadowy presence is stalking Garion he leaves the farm in company of Pol and Mister Wolf, the farm's blacksmith Durnik also joins them. They link up with the giant Cherek warrior Barak and his fox faced companion Silk. As they journey on Garion discovers more about himself, his destiny and the two constants in his life; Aunt Pol and Mister Wolf.
Despite the criticism Pawn of Prophecy, and the Belgariad as a whole, has received about being lightweight, it's a fun romp. Yes, it is very light and the world building is fairly shallow, but it's a fun easy read. It's a good introduction for a young reader or someone who doesn't want anything too involved, into fantasy.
The main characters are largely stereotypes. Garion is the wide eyed young man who has a destiny to fulfil. Aunt Pol is a motherly nurturing type, who hides her great power behind that facade. Mister Wolf is the great sorcerer Belgarath and largely follows the benevolent, bearded magic user storyline that's been around since Merlin in the original King Arthur legend. The presence of Durnik has always puzzled me. I think he's meant to represent the everyman view, but he's so totally unremarkable that you could replace him with a statue and I doubt anyone would notice. Barak is the big dumb muscle and Silk is there for comedy relief. He actually seems to be the best rounded character and is I believe many people's favourite.
You can't really read Pawn of Prophecy without reading the rest, in fact it's only really starting at the end of that book. So in the coming weeks I will be reading and reviewing each book in the Belgariad.
If you wanted to read on David Eddings wrote a 5 volume sequel called The Malloreon and also Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Reads could possibly be the most challenging book of Cerebus I've ever attempted to review. It's actually a bit of a challenge to read it in the first place. In this case it not being broken up into bite sized issue length chapters is a definite strength. I can't remember reading it as it came out, I know I did, because I was still collecting the comic at this point, but I can't recall it. I know reading Reads issue by issue month by month would have been a deeply unsatisfying and confusing experience. Reads, to me, is designed to be read as a single book. It's another example of Dave pushing the boundaries of the medium he was working in.
Dave actually describes Reads best in his introduction: Reads is a mixture of autobiography, a meditation on the traditional role of the creator in a capitalistic society, the nature of creativity itself, a re-examination of the conclusions reached at the end of Church & State, and a big fight.
He never actually says who the characters of Victor Reid and Viktor Davis are other than to say that they were fascinating and challenging companions.
Reads is 3 stories, that of Reads author Victor Reid, the continuing story of Cerebus and the story of a creator/artist/author called Viktor Davis. I'll try and break it down that way.
First we encounter Victor Reid. Victor is a moderately successful author of the Reads that are the main opiate of the masses in Cirinist controlled Estarcion. When the concept of Reads were first introduced in the book by Weisshaupt I always saw them as trashy romance novels or pulp books, but in this book it is obvious that they are comics. The story of the hapless Victor is largely that of a clueless author who is seduced into selling his creative soul to a heartless publisher in order to make more money and once he's in, he can't get out. It's largely a series of observations on the comics industry at the time in which the book was written.
Sandwiched between, in and around the stories of the two Vic(k)tors is the story of Cerebus. It picks up where Women left off with Po, Astoria and Cerebus confronting Cirin in the cathedral. Po semonises on the nature of the 4 people in the cathedral and the nature of aardvarks in a human dominated society. There's something different about all the aardvarks, but at this stage Cerebus has the ascendancy, mainly because he's a trained warrior, armed with a sword and can kill everyone in the place if he wants to. At times, mainly due to the way he was occasionally drawn I wondered about Po's gender. Cirin is female, Cerebus is male, was Po either or both? I'd discover the answer later.
Po leaves and the other 3 look at each other. Astoria tells Cerebus that it will not be necessary to kill her as she is also leaving soon. Before she does she comes out with some stunning revelations. Cerebus is a hermaphrodite. What bothers Cirin about Cerebus is that she believes he can impregnate himself and possibly produce an entire race of aardvarks. She's had a child and he was human in every respect. Astoria did not fall pregnant when Cerebus raped her, but as she's never carried a child before and no one knows if Cerebus has fathered any, there's no way of telling if either or both of them are infertile or if it was just one of those things. Astoria seems fed up with controlling things and trying to gain power, she tells Cirin and Cerebus to play nice and suggests that maybe Cirin and Cerebus try having sex, then leaves the building.
Enter the Roach. He's now dressed in a robe and referring to himself as Kay Sarah Sarah. I never knew if this was another character or an extension of the Sandman parody. Elrod is still done up as Snuff, so it's possible that this was a continuation of the Sandman parody. Readers discovered the truth of Elrod. How he could keep popping up no matter how definitively he seemed to have been killed. He wasn't actually real, he was only kept alive by belief in his own existence. Upon hearing this he popped out of existence with a loud POIT, leaving the Kay Sarah Sarah incarnation of the Roach standing on a platform floating in space.
Back in the cathedral Cerebus and Cirin fight. Initially, having a sword Cerebus has the upper hand and it looks like he's going to cut the leader of the church into pieces. Cirin fights back and manages to get the sword, she cuts off Cerebus' ear and that's about when the entire cathedral collapses around them and they are both clinging to the throne and the platform it sits on when it lifts off and floats towards, you guessed it...the Moon!
The 3rd part of Reads is extraordinary. The story of the successful Reads author Viktor Davis. Part autobiography, part political treatise, part musing on what is and isn't real. Rambling internal monologue, Talk about the book, it's history, it's present and its possible future. It came across as something like the Ulysses of comics. The character of Viktor Davis as written by Dave Sim, absolutely fucked with the readers heads the entire way through it. I don't know if I totally understood what was being said, it's hard to say if anyone did, but it was an entertaining look into someone's thought process.
Inreresting to see if Dave can pull this all back on track in Minds.
Monday, February 21, 2011
There's a subtle change in Conn Iggulden's 4th book of his Conqueror series Empire of Silver.
Genghis Khan has died and his mantle of Khan has passed onto his 3rd son Ogedai. Genghis' surviving brothers; Kachiun, Khasar and Temuge, and even his great general Tsubodai are looked upon largely as relics of a past era and Ogedai is very different from his father. He has built his own city; Karakorum, a move that pleases Temuge, but perplexes his other uncles and Tsubodai who believe in conquest only, and can't understand why he is setting himself up as a target for his jealous older brother Chagatai.
What many people don't know is that Ogedai, young though he is, has a heart condition. This heart condition becomes a problem and it changes the course of the Mongol empire in 2 ways. Ogedai's younger brother; Tolui (father of Kublai) sacrifices himself to buy his brother a longer life. This unexpectedly elevates his beautiful and intelligent wife; Sorhatani, to a higher position. She is given her husband's title and rights, something unheard of in Mongol society. Sorhatani makes herself indispensible to Ogedai and gets close to his wife; Torogene. It's obvious that even then she was jockeying her sons into position.
Ogedai dies when his son and heir; Guyuk is on campaign in Hungary. The news halts the Mongol advance, something that Tsubodai wishes to continue. The authors note muses that if the Mongols had not retreated after Ogedai's death then they very possibly could have taken over all the west and changed the course of history irrevocably.
There was one introspective scene where Tsubodai saved a Russian girl from being violated by two of his men during the sack of a Russian. The girl cannot speak Mongolian and Tsubodai doesn't know enough Russian to hold a conversation. He ascertains that the girl has heard of Genghis' and he wonders bitterly how history will remember Tsubodai the man that helped to forge the legend of Genghis, or if history will remember him at all.
By the end of Empire of Silver, an era has passed. Genghis and all his brothers have died, Tsubodai is probably the last remaining relic of the violent birth of a nation.
I hadn't previously heard of Ogedai, I'd always thought that the mantle passed directly from Genghis to his grandson Kublai. This was not the case. In his short reign (he ruled between 1229 and 1241) he started the Mongol empire on the course that Kublai would be remembered for continuing. It was a fascinating look at a little know historical figure and for me it introduced one of the great women of history: Sorhatani Beki.
Conn Iggulden has two further books planned in this series and I assume that they will focus on the reign of Kublai Khan. They are as yet untitled, but will have a reader waiting for them.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Worldshaker by Richard Harland is a steampunk YA novel. There must be something about Australian authors and YA steampunk, one of the others I know is Michael Pryor's marvelous The Laws of Magic series.
Worldshaker is set in an alternate world where a fifty year war between the large European imperial powers of the 18th and 19th century has devastated the landscape to make it unliveable. The imperial powers have abandoned their colonies and taken to giant ships that travel over land and sea, known as juggernauts.
The book is set on the Worldshaker, Britain's great juggernaut. There are 3 distinct classes of people aboard Worldshaker; the Upper Deck, representing the upper class, the Menials who are the servants and working class and then below decks are the Filthies, they would have been factory fodder in the old world. There are also sub classes amongst the Upper Deck. The whole thing is overseen by the ship's Supreme Comander who is under the rubber stamp authority of Queen Victoria III and her consort Prince Albert.
The two central characters are Colbert Porpentine, the grandson of the Supreme Comannder; Sir Mormus Porpentine, and Sir Mormus' chosen successor. The other main character is Riff, a fiery young Filthy, who is part of the Revolutionary Council, and determined to overthrow the current ruling class.
Col and Riff meet and she forces Col to investigate his life and history of the world. He finds out that the Filthies are not a separate species of subhuman as everyone has been told. The Menials are people who have been lobotomised to make them more obedient and his family are as guilty if not more so of abusing their servants. Circumstances force Col into action and he and Riff are at the forefront of the new order, it turns out that they are the only ones who can prevent Sir Mormus from blowing up the ship in order to preserve his own legend.
For a YA story it's not too bad, interesting idea and settings. There are echoes of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in the Menials and the Filthies put me in mind of those below the cities in David Williamson's Chung Kuo. In fact the themes of class were present in both of those novels and in Chung Kuo civilisation had been forced into giant domed cities.
The book was a little uneven in terms of pacing and characterisation. I became convinced that Col and Riff were about 12 or 13 only to be told that Col was in fact 16 and Riff was 15, they both often seemed, especially Col, so much younger, he was also a very passive protagonist for most of the narrative, springing into action in the last section, the sub story with his sister; Gillabeth, was also never satisfactorily resolved. The last section was all action, which was rather at odds with all the setup that had taken place throughout the majority of the story. For the YA set it was an involving and interesting story with sympathetic protagonists and a rather novel idea and setting. I did enjoy it, although I accept that I'm not the intended audience. The fact that it's standalone is another point in it's favour.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The last of the D's, The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany is a real classic.
Edward Plunkett was the eighteenth Baron Dunsany and wrote under his official title of Lord Dunsany. The nobly born author influenced a number of the early fantasists: Lovecraft and Leiber amongst them, I believe Tolkien may have also cited him as an inspiration, and these in turn influenced the next generation and gave us the great fantasy authors of today.
The King of Elfland's Daughter is quite extraordinary. There's a fairly loose and basic plot. The folk of Erl in the fields we know decide that they want a magical ruler and to that end send their Prince Alveric into Elfland to get someone. He returns after some years with a wife; Lirazel, the King of Elfland's Daughter. They have a son; Orion. After trying to live in Erl and understand the Freer (which seems to be the Catholic Church) Lirazel pines for her home and leaves. Unable to live without her, Alveric follows, but is unable to find the way back to Elfland and wanders lost in the wilderness for years. Without the influence of either mother or father, Orion grows up wild and lives to hunt, shockingly his prey of choice is the unicorns that sometimes stray into the fields we know from Elfland. Eventually Elfland and Erl merge and the family is reunited.
What stands out about The King of Elfland's Daughter is Dunsany's incredible imagination, his vision of Elfland, which most modern writers tend to call faery, Dunsany's ideas have been taken and used by writers since, it's been added to and altered, but it was his original vision that set the building blocks. Then there is the prose. Dunsany was a master with words and he chose them very carefully with The King of Elfland's Daughter. The prose was beautiful and lovingly written, it fitted the mood that Dunsany was trying to convey during that section of story.
It was hard to get to know the characters and the main 3 tended to fit stereotypes, there was a fourth character which was a lot of fun and that was the troll; Lurulu. Lurulu is no under the bridge type troll. He's a small, mischievous and loyal character. He's more like a pixie than a troll, he and his whimsical behaviour provided a number of the book's most amusing moments.
Neil Gaiman's Stardust which was also made into a film, seems similar in tone and theme to The King of Elfland's Daughter. Gaiman wrote the introduction to my edition of The King of Elfland's Daughter, so he may be another author influenced by Dunsany. I felt that Tad Williams The War of the Flowers shared something thematically in that the heart of it is a person from our world crossing into a very cpmpletely realised and revolutionary view of faery.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Comig this summer to a book store near you: Mockingjay!
Hallee Steinfeld as Katniss Everdeen
Jacob Zachar as Peeta Mellark
Liam Hemsworth as Gale
Jeff Bridges as Haymitch
Billy Bob Thornton as President Snow
Directed by Michael Bay (there's more than enough stuff blowing up to keep him interested)
Having survived 2 Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen is back, and she wants revenge. The Capitol have kidnapped and tortured her friends, they bombed her home and they tried to kill her sister's cat. Katniss is through playing games!
I am aware that the first Hunger Games book reviewed here is being made into a film and I also suck at fantasy casting, but after reading Mockingjay I just had to do that.
I've mentiioned in my reviews of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire that Suzanne Collins writes in a very cinematic style. This is so obvious in Mockingjay that it was almost like reading a film script rather than a novel. Just as well she does write such good action, because her dialogue could have been written by George Lucas...okay maybe it's not quite that bad, but you get where I'm coming from with the comparison.
In Catching Fire Katniss survived the Quarter Quell Hunger Games and was spirited away by the rebels in the fabled District 13 to spearhead their rebellion. All Katniss really wants is to kill President Snow and have her family and friends left to live their lives in peace and safety, but as the poster child for the rebelllion; the Mockingjay, that's never going to be allowed, and it appears that she is in danger of exchanging ne tyrannical leader in Snow for another in the leader of the highly militarised and rigidly disciplined District 13's President Coin.
Most of the story centres around the rebellion and as the story has always been told in present tense first person, if Katniss isn't present, then the action takes place off screen and isn't covered in any depth.
I felt Collins struggled to give her post apocalyptic North America any real complexity or sense of reality. District 12 is mining, District 7 lumber, District 3 technology, etc... Readers never really got to know much about any characters aside from Katniss herself and her 2 love interests; Peeta and Gale, as a result when someone important is killed there's no real sense of loss or shock as there should be.
As I've read a few similar things over the years the ending came as no real surprise to me. Overall the series was relatively bleak and desperately needed an injection of humour, which was tried with the character of Finnick, but never quite came off. Given that this is a YA series Collins attempted to give it a happy ending, which to my mind didn't exactly work for the tone of the series. Overall I think it would have been better finishing after The Hunger Games and letting the readers imagine how things could have played out. There just wasn't enough there to sustain a trilogy. The three books are very readable and I can see why they've captured the minds of both male and female teens, but I can't see them living on as fondly in memory as some other recent YA phenomenons.
Friday, February 11, 2011
It's been a little while since I posted a review, this is partially because my reading slowed down and also because I was hospitalised briefly for an operation. February sucks!
Bones of the Hills is the 3rd of Conn Iggulden's Conqueror series, a planned 6 book series chronicling the life of Genghis Khan and his heirs; Ogedai and Kublai.
Following his successful siege and conquest of Chin capital Yenking (Beijing) in Lords of the Bow Genghis has gone from strength to strength and increased his empire substantially. At the beginning of Bones of the Hills Genghis' armies are continuing to take over China, have conquered Koryo (Korea), made successful incursions into Russia and launched an attack on the Arabs. It's not really stated where they are exactly, but most of the action seems to take place in Afghanistan.
The Arabs are a worthy and difficult opponent for the Mongols. They share some similarities and this makes it hard for the Genghis' forces to subdue and control them as they have others that they have encountered.
Genghis' relationshhip with his oldest son; Jochi, sours to the extent that could cost the older of the Khan brothers his life. Genghis' also loses patience with his named heir Chagatai and he declares that his third son; Ogedai will become Khan on his death.
A lot of this particular volume centres on one of Genghis' greatest generals; Tsubodai. Tsubodai was introduced in the 2nd book and is certainly an interesting footnote character in history, and he was responsible for many of the great Mongol leaders victories.
Most of the book seemed to detail the campaigns and battles against the Arabs. After a while I fount it a bit tedious. There are only so many battles one can read about before they start to blend into one another. Possibly it may be of interest to a military historian, but not to me. Genghis also came full circle from the exiled son of a Khan to the ruthless conqueror who cared for nothing but his next conquest, it made for a very unsympathetic protagonist and he fully deserved the rather unpleasant end he met.
Frustratingly the characters of Temgue and Kokchu were not further developed before one faded into the background and the other was executed for his excesses. In Lords of the Bow readers were introduced to a fighting Buddhist monk; Yao Shu, and he reappeared, unfortunately for an interesting character he was not given enough time to develop.
Despite Bones of the Hills failings I am looking forward to Empire of Silver and seeing how the empire Genghis built fares under his son Ogedai.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
The 2nd last of the D’s for the challenge.
I’ve read Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane (the opening book of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) 3 times now and it’s never inspired me to read the rest of the series. As the last time was in the late 80’s, I thought things may have changed over time. Sadly that is not the case.
Lord Foul’s Bane came out at about the same time as Terry Brooks Sword of Shannara and both books were hailed as successors to JRR Tolkien’s (Lord of the Rings) mantle as the master of high fantasy. Right from the start Shannara was, and still is, pilloried as being extremely derivative of Tolkien. Donaldson’s work did not suffer the same fate, although it does not now seem to inspire the positive criticism that it once enjoyed. In a number of ways I found it far more derivative of Tolkien’s work than Terry Brooks’ debut.
One of the things that sets the Covenant Chronicles apart from other similar works is it’s protagonist. Thomas Covenant is an adult, a successful novelist, he lives in America and he is a leper.
Covenant is involved in a car accident and finds himself in the Land (no, I’m not kidding, Donaldson called his world the Land), a pre industrial world where humans and other races live in harmony with nature. Covenant's missing 2 fingers (they were removed to prevent the more rapid spread of his disease) and the white gold wedding ring he still wears, despite his wife having left him with their infant son after his positive diagnosis, mark him as the legendary hero Berek Halfhand. It’s never really explained how Covenant came to be transported to the Land, although it is believed to be the work of Cavewight Drool Rockworm at the behest of Lord Foul the Despised. Covenant believes that the entire thing is some sort of vivid dream and that is why he names himself The Unbeliever. He’s involved in a sort of quest to rid the Land of Rockworm’s army of Cavewights and ur-viles and the presence of Foul himself.. Aside from possibly the most unsympathetic protagonist ever in ef only one character is more than two dimensional sketch and that’s Covenant’s good natured friend the Ent…sorry Giant Seaheart Foamfollower. I think the Giant was meant to provide some sort of comedy relief, the book is unrelentingly bleak, but most of his jokes fell rather flat.
If it sounds like I didn’t like this book then you’re right. I didn’t. The prose is uninspiring, it’s appallingly derivative of Tolkien, it’s humourless, the world building is poor and the characters are two dimensional, it’s been saddled with an unlikeable, unpleasant anti-hero and then there’s his disease. There’s a reason Stephen Donaldson made Thomas Covenant a leper. Donaldson’s father was a doctor who worked with lepers in India, Donaldson himself lived there between the ages of 3 and 16. What he saw and experienced there obviously had a profound effect on him and seem to have inspired the creation of his main character. Readers are told right from the start what Covenant suffers from and given details about the disease and how it affect sufferers, we do not need to have this reinforced every single chapter from that point on. I didn’t care about Covenant himself, the Land, the quest or any of his companions. There are 8 more books featuring Covenant, with at least one more due in 2013 (The First Chronicles, The Second Chronicles and The Last Chronicles, there’s that marvellously inventive imagination at work again!)
I’ve been led to believe that some of Stephen Donaldson’s other work; his science fiction Gap Cycle and the Mordant’s Need epic fantasy books aren’t all that bad. I’m not sure that I really want to take the chance, though.
Similar works that are also rather Tolkienesque, but in my opinion far more enjoyable are: Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and some of Robert Jordan’s early Wheel of Time books, before that author became obsessed with the minutiae of his creation. At times I wondered if Jordan had taken some things from Lord Foul’s Bane and improved on them for his own epic. You could also of course read Lord of the Rings, but if you do that, treat yourself and read The Hobbit first.
Lords of the Bow is the 2nd of British author Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series about the lives of the Mongol warlords Genghis, Ogedai and Kublai Khan, it follows Wolf of the Plains, reviewed here in August 2010.
The action picks up some years after the end of Wolf of the Plains and opens with Genghis taking over the last of the Mongol tribes yet to join him, that of the Naimans. He spares the life of the tribe’s shaman; the ambitious and scheming Kokchu.
The majority of the book concerns itself with Genghi's attack on the Chin empire, concentrating on his siege of the empire’s capital city; Yenking (Beijing). Before entering China the Mongol warlord takes over the Western Xia kingdom and accepts a Xia princess as tribute. He marries the girl and prefers her to his first wife; Borte. The girl is charming and clever as well as being attractive, it is highly likely that she and her offspring could cause trouble for Genghis, his brothers and sons in the future.
To get around the problem of the story focussing on events and characters that the audience is probably aware of the outcome of Iggulden goes elsewhere. Two of Genghis’ brothers; Khasar and Temuge, are central in this volume. The brothers are a total contrast. Khasar is tall and strong, none too bright, the typical Mongal warrior, preferring to let his bow and blade do the talking. Temuge is the youngest of the brothers, physically the weakest and never excelled at the martial arts as did the other three. Khasar sees the Chin as weak and deserving of conquest by the nomadic northern raiders, whereas Temuge sees the benefit in their civilisation and wishes to add these elements to the Mongol lifestyle.
Genghis fractured relationship with his oldest son; Jochi, is described. The warlord does not believe Jochi is his son, he is the product of a violation of Borte by a Tatar when she was held captive by the Mongol’s old enemy. For this reason Genghis favours younger son Chagatai over Jochi and this has the possibility of seeing the oldest son pitted against his brother and father in the future. Something that could be exploited by the devious Kokchu.
The book moved at a fast pace and the research into the Mongol’s lifestyle and the lengthy sometimes brutal siege of Yenking was obviously exhaustive. My only real negative critcism is an overly long middle section regarding Khasar and Temuge’s journey as ’spies’ to the Chin city of Baotou. It gave the reader an insight into the characters of the brothers, but didn’t really seem to serve any other purpose. The pretext for the mission was to find out more about China’s Great Wall and procure a mason to help the Mongol’s break through it, but this could have bee accomplished with far less pages than it took to tell and without the unnecessary, to me, story of Tong leader Chen Yi.
It ends on a less final note than Wolf of the Plains, which had a standalone feel to it, but as there is a sequel already available that’s not really a problem. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to Bones of the Hills quicker than I did Lords of the Bow.