Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - an introduction

Time for the read of Flashman at the Charge to start, so some of my thoughts about the book before reading. Admittedly it’s a rather unwieldy title, but it’s far better than the attempt to make the book sound amusing as they did with Flash for Freedom. The ‘Charge’ that the title refers to is the celebrated Charge of the Light Brigade immortalised by then Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his epic poem. A great many can quote one of the poem’s best known lines: ‘Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred’, but I’m not so certain that they could tell you what the poem was about or what war it refers to. It was a celebrated and ultimately futile charge during the equally futile Crimean War.

For the 4th book in a row George MacDonald Fraser links a significant piece of literature to his venal anti-hero. In Flashman it was Tom Brown’s Schooldays, in Royal Flash, Prisoner of Zenda got the Flashman treatment, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has a reference in Flash for Freedom and in Flashman at the Charge it is The Charge of the Light Brigade.

To date the Crimean War is probably the best known conflict that Flashy has been involved in, but Flashman at the Charge isn’t just about that. Harry gets himself in out of trouble in beds from London to Central Asia and gets caught up in, not only Britain’s struggle against Russia in the Crimea, but also foils a Russian plan to take over Central Asia, and thus put pressure on Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’ of India.

There was talk in 2007 that Celtic Films were going to produce a number of the books as TV projects. Picture Palace said that they were going to do Flashman at the Charge, and there was even talk that James Purefoy would be cast as Harry (shame it never came off, because that is almost perfect casting for the lead role). It looked as if they were going to be done along the same lines as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, which both companies had also been involved in. There was a reason they chose Flashman at the Charge; it is an absolute cracker of a novel. Harry is in his 30’s, so not as hard to cast as when he was younger, and it’s about a conflict which is even now still relatively well known. There’s been recent news that Michael Fassbender has been cast as Harry in a 2013 project, but no word about which of the books is being adapted. I’ve heard similar rumours in the past and they generally don’t come to much. If this one is true I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the plan is to do Flashman at the Charge, Fassbender is the right age for it.

This is where you have a significant difference between chronological order and publication order. When readers last saw Harry he had just negotiated with John Charity Spring to take him from New Orleans back home to England. That was in 1849, possibly early spring. Flashman at the Charge picks up in London in 1854, roughly 4 - 5 years have passed since the end of Flash for Freedom and knowing Harry he couldn’t possibly have stayed out of trouble for that long, so readers knew there were more adventures in between Flash for Freedom and Flashman at the Charge, but just when George MacDonald Fraser would get around to writing them was anyone’s guess.

The cover for the edition I’m using, is as customary, has Flashman in the foreground, with a battle scene, most likely the Crimea, in the background. Flashy has his magnificent cavalry whiskers, or ‘tart catchers’ as he amusingly referred to them in Flash for Freedom, on prominent display, he’s wearing that self satisfied smile of his and he’s figged out in full dress military gear, complete with a ridiculous looking helmet and a flag. This one is gonna be fun.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings

I must have read Castle of Wizardry at some point, in fact I must have read it more than once, because I know I’ve read the entire Belgariad at least twice. Somehow in these readings I somehow managed to miss the books failings, and they are many. The nicest thing I can say about is that it is unnecessary.

I’m not sure when this started, but it seems to coincide with the advent of big, sprawling multi book series; The Belgariad at 5 volumes is one of the first of these, writers began to write what readers now seem to call ‘filler’ books. They contain roughly the same number of pages as the rest of the book in the series, but virtually none of the plot or character development. Castle of Wizardry is one such book. There are maybe 50 pages of relevant material that actually moves the plot and story forward, yet the book is 370+ pages in length. I don’t see any reason that the pertinent information couldn’t have been added to the end of the Magician’s Gambit and the start of Enchanter’s End Game, thus entirely negating the need for the wandering mess that is Castle of Wizardry.

Garion and the gang escape Murgoland, they lob up on the Rivan Isles, Garion gets proclaimed as Rivan King, much to Ce’Nedra’s distress because she now has to marry Garion and accept that she actually is in love with him. Garion, Belgarath and Silk go on a road trip for no other reason than the authors seemed to think it was a good idea at the time (the real reason is to confront Torak, but it results in some of that pointless wandering about the countryside that readers love so much) and Ce’Nedra does a tour gathering support for her soon to be husband’s cause. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell and it took David and wife Leigh Eddings over 300 pages to do this.

I’d long been aware that they tended to gloss over important social issues for the sake of a joke, but I didn’t remember them making light of Hettar the Horselord’s homicidal tendencies where Grolims are concerned, but they do. Hettar admits that most of his waking thoughts concern killing Grolims when asked by two of the other alpha males in Barak and Mandorallen. Barak does seem a little concerned, but there’s really an air of it being laughed off as ‘Oh that Hettar! What a card he is! Here, behead another Grolim old chap, that should cheer you up.’

There was also the rather bizarre relationship between the religious zealot Relg and the sheltered cave woman Taiba. It’s seriously dysfunctional and couldn’t be enjoyed by either, but it is encouraged by characters like Polgara.

So much of this seemed to be ideas that probably should have been edited out, but were left in to make up the page count. The boy detective thing that Lelldorin and Garion went on to find out who was behind the attempts on Garion’s life was one such example. Not only was it entirely ridiculous and unbelievable, it was totally out of place. That sort of thing should be left to the Hardy Boys and The Three Detectives. No, I take that back not one of the books in those series contained such badly written, amateurish attempts at investigating.

Characters were made to act entirely out of character for no real reason. Polgara’s tantrum is one such example. When finding out her father, Garion and Silk have skipped out, she flies into a terrible rage and throws a tantrum that any 3 year old would have been proud of. Of course being possessed of almost godlike power an enraged Polgara could level the city if she were allowed to keep it going. Who calmed her down? Ce’Nedra. Ce’Nedra! The queen of the tantrum herself. So we have the infuriatingly calm and self possessed Polgara, who generally sips tea serenely and offers practical advice to rulers of nations throwing a tantrum because her father, surrogate nephew and an associate have managed to escape the island and put one over her, being calmed down and settled by a fairly scattered 16 year old half dryad who is notable for throwing things and holding her breath when her every whim is not catered to? It was almost as if the Eddings’ decided to write a chapter or two of the book in Bizarroland. Truly odd. When they first came up with the idea it may have actually sounded pretty funny, unfortunately in practice it’s stupid.

In this one not even the hallmark of the books in the snappy dialogue can save them. This is mainly because there isn’t any. There’s dialogue, but none of it is particularly amusing or well written. Stilted, clunky and boring are the three words that immediately spring to mind. Honestly if you haven’t read The Belgariad and you do want to, you could skip Castle of Wizardry and not have missed anything. You may actually improve your reading experience by doing so.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Serpent by Jane Gaskell

The Serpent by Jane Gaskell is a challenge novel, it's the 4th of the G's. It is the first novel of the author's five volume Atlan Saga.

As a novelist Jane Gaskell had a relatively low profile career. She released her first novel Strange Evil at the age of 16 (it was written when she was 14), it was one of 8 standalone novels and along withe 5 books in the Atlan Saga comprises the sum total of her output. Her last book Sun Bubble came out in 1990. Both China Mieville and John Clute have been very complimentary about Strange Evil. A Sweet, Sweet Summer was awarded the Somerset Maugham award in 1970.

The Serpent came out in 1963. It is the story of Cija (pronounced Key-a), a young woman raised in seclusion to believe that she is a goddess and that men are myths. When her home city (no country, aside from Atlan believed to be the legendary city of Atlantis, is ever named. People either come from the south or the north of the prehistoric South American continent on which the book is set), is conquered by forces loyal to the half lizard commander Zerd, Cija is taken, along with others, as a hostage to ensure her mother; the Dictatresses, good behaviour. The book is written in first person and is Cija's journal as she travels across the continent, mostly with Zerd's army, but at times on her own.

It's an interesting story and written in a quite unusual manner for the time. It's rather hard to really pin down what sort of society and world it's set in. They're not technologically advanced, but they're further along than stone age, they seem to be rather medieval in terms of development, yet Cija's writing seems to suggest a sheltered 19th century European gentlewoman. At times you could be reading the journal of a well bred young woman taken hostage by an tribe of native Americans, or an English gentlewoman captured by a less civilised army somewhere on the frontier.

The main theme of it, for the time it was published, is different. It explores Cija's awakening sexuality and her dealings with various men she encounters. From the savage and powerful Zerd, to the ambitious officer from her own homeland Smahil and the local governor who enslaves and rapes her. She later uses her savage war bird; Ums, to kill the man. Gender confusion is also explored as a theme. In a remote village Cija meets a boy of her own age by the name of Nels, who confesses that he has always felt he should have been born a woman, she later encounters him masquerading as a woman with a powerful man in Zerd's bureaucratic machine. Cija herself pretends to be a boy and has doubts about her own sexuality, occasionally referring to herself in the masculine in her journal.

Despite enjoying The Serpent, and it making me think, I'm not really inclined to continue with the Atlan Saga, I can kind of see where it's going. Cija, having gone from pampered seclusion as a 'goddess' and then having to survive as a hostage, camp follower, slave and fugitive, will eventually rise to supreme power as an empress of sorts. I believe the final book in the series; Some Summer Lands (published in 1977) is from the point of view of Cija's daughter. I presume she is also Smahil's daughter, as The Serpent concludes with Cija and Smahil making love. The other reason I wouldn't continue with the series is that I don't feel Cija is a powerful enough character or narrator to really carry more than one book successfully.

Jane Gaskell did create an interesting prehistoric world, with the giant birds and the civilisation itself. There is even a foreword which talks about the translation of the journal and attempts to provide pseudo scientific explanations for the giant birds and the lizard people, etc...

If anyone did want to read on there are 3 or 4 more (depending on which edition of The Serpent you get) books in the Atlan Saga. I found N.K Jemisin's much discussed and highly regarded Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to be a little similar in theme. The heroine (Yeine) there leaves a sheltered life to become the ruler of her world. Dave Duncan's portal fantasy trilogy; The Great Game, also featured a primitive army that fought on the backs of large ostrich like war birds, he may have been inspired to some extent by the Atlan Saga.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

WOW! Capital W capital O capital W exclamation point. That’s my immediate reaction after reading Discount Armageddon. If I wanted to do a lazy review I’d tell you that this is a totally awesome book and you should run out and buy it right now, but that however wouldn’t be telling you why.

Discount Armageddon is the first book of Seanan McGuire's (October Daye series) new InCryptid urban fantasy series.

Most of us have heard about cryptids, they’re creatures who might exist or are rumoured to, but no genuine proof has actually been discovered. Two of the most famous examples are the Himalayan Yeti and Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. Discount Armageddon works on the premise that cryptids are real, they’ve always been real, many of them co exist alongside the rest of the population, others walk amongst us without anyone being aware of it.

Verity Price comes from a long line of cyrptozoologists, who have worked for generations to find, study and protect the cryptids. If many of the cryptids are actually monsters, or as the back cover blurb puts it ‘Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties’ why do they need protecting and what from? That would be the Price families sworn enemy; the Covenant of St George, this centuries old, quasi military organisation exists to exterminate cryptids…ALL cryptids. Some of them are harmless and others are actually beneficial to human society. Verity’s ambition is to be a professional dancer, and she’s moved to New York to pursue that dream, but the only way her family would let her go was if she also promised to look after the family business on the East Coast.

On the way home from her job as a cocktail waitress at a cryptid owned and staffed strip club (Dave’s Fish and Strips) one night Verity runs into her exact opposite, a na├»ve, but cute Covenant operative by the name of Dominic De Luca. Once she gets out of his trap and gives him a right royal telling off, Verity and Dominic soon work out that while they’re coming at it from different angles they essentially have the same goal, and that’s to find and neutralize the sleeping dragon under Manhattan before it causes major damage to the human and cryptid population of the city.

Discount Armageddon is urban fantasy in its purest form. Although the October Daye series has been highly successful for Seanan McGuire, and both she and her growing army of fans are fond of the changeling detective and the cast of that series, the InCryptid series is the one Seanan has always wanted to write and in fact I believe she was born to do this one. At times it was like she had a direct line to my brain, I often found myself reading and thinking ‘I’ve always wondered how that would work if someone wanted to write about it.’

Verity has a strong voice, she’s a knowledgeable and easy to relate to narrator, she may be a bit too idealistic for her own good, and she is fiercely independent and protective of those close to her. Verity and Dominic make an excellent opposites attract couple, and they’re both very likeable. There’s also a great supporting cast, from Verity’s family; her cranky, studious, gun loving brother and her frankly dangerous younger sister; Antimony, to her telepathic adopted cousin Sarah Zellaby and Verity’s workmates; the gorgon Carol, with the dangerous, venomous hair, the waheela Istas, who seems to have a penchant for wearing her enemy’s bodily organs as hats and the dragon princess Candy, who doesn’t have much in the way of offensive capabilities aside from asbestos skin. I haven’t even mentioned the Aeslin mice, yet and no review of Discount Armageddon would be complete without some mention of the community of intensely religious talking rodents, who amongst other things, are addicted to cheese and cake.

It is early days, but Discount Armageddon is one of the most amusing urban fantasies I’ve ever read, packed with fresh ideas and plenty of scope to expand. Hopefully sales will be strong and we readers will get to see a lot more of Verity, the Price family and the cryptids. Cheese! And Cake!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Westward Weird edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes

Doing this blog actually makes me look closely at what I read and it’s exploding a few myths about my reading habits. It’s about 95% fantasy, which I freely admit and thought was the case before, but I say I don’t read portal fantasy, and if you go through what I’ve read and reviewed there’s a bit of that there. I also say I don’t really read anthologies because I’m not big on short fiction, but that’s probably not the case either. I read a few last year, I’m about to review an anthology and I can see another one peeking cheekily out of the TBR pile.

Westward Weird, published by Penguin and edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes is a concept anthology. Most of them seem to be on a theme these days. The much hyped, but disappointing Warriors collection was largely SFF stories about warriors and Westward Weird is a collection of SFF stories with a western theme. My motivation for reading the whole thing was really Seanan McGuire. I adore Seanan McGuire’s writing and ever since first encountering her at Worldcon in 2010 I have read and reviewed all of her novels, including the ones written under her pseudonym of Mira Grant. In March Seanan is releasing Discount Armageddon, the first book of her new InCryptid series. I’ve been lucky enough to read Discount Armageddon (I hope to have a review here sometime next week) and when I heard she had an InCryptid story in Westward Weird it was a must buy. I did also like some of the other names on the roster: Jody Lynn Nye and Kristine Katherine Rusch, I’d never read any Jay Lake, but I have wanted to try him and he’d put a story in Westward Weird.

Like most anthologies it’s a grab bag as far as content and quality goes. Some stories are excellent, some are so so and some didn’t appeal to me at all. The writers have certainly gone everywhere with the theme. Quite a number of the stories are very steampunkish in style, the wild west is starting to lend itself more and more to that sub genre, and others are best described as the coolest kid on the block in urban fantasy. We’ve got cyborg gunslingers, a deal with the devil, a sequel to War of the Worlds set in outer space, a clockwork cowboy, vampires and werewolves pop in, there are ghosts and sky cities, even a questing beast and talking mice. It’s eclectic, but it is fun. There’s really something to suit most tastes in here.

The standouts for me were Seanan’s story (I’m sure that’s a huge surprise), but I’m a sucker for anything that features the Aeslin Mice and The Flower of Arizona does that. I think Seanan was the only one who contributed something that is related to a current ongoing novel concept. It can actually be read without any knowledge of InCryptid and it will give you some useful information for when you do read Discount Armageddon (believe me EVERYONE is going to want to read Discount Armageddon, it is beyond cool), and if you’ve already read it, then you get to spend some more quality time with the Healy family and their community of talking mice. Kristine Katherine Rusch’s Renn and the Little Men was a whimsical little concept that was very silly, but also a lot of fun. I also really took to The Clockwork Cowboy by J. Steven York. They were my three favourites although I do have to give a special mention to Christopher McKitterick for Surveyor of Mars in attempting to write a sort of sequel to War of the Worlds. That takes guts and he pulls it off!

I’ve read much more hyped collections with better credentialed contributors, and come away disappointed. Not every story in Westward Weird hit the mark, but they did it more often than not. Highly recommended, especially if you like steampunk and Seanan McGuire.

Flash for Freedom - some afterthoughts

As I said at the start of this that Flash for Freedom does differ from the two books that preceded it. It's in North America, I don't know if Flashman ever went to Canada, he spent most of his time on the continent either in the US or Mexico, but he seemed to have gone most other places and I can only imagine what sort of chaos he could have caused in Canada, so there may very well be an adventure there that never actually made it to print. Secondly at no stage is Flashman ever actually doing something for Queen and Country. He pretends to be a naval officer, but that's only to get himself out of trouble. It also ends differently as I have covered.

It seems to be an attempt by George MacDonald Fraser to make a comment on the slave trade, and in fact when you think about it slavery of one form or another is the continuing theme of the book. It begins with the downtrodden masses of England, who like many in similar straits in Europe were rising up in revolution at their plight (this was covered briefly at the end of Royal Flash) and it continued early in Flash for Freedom, it was largely how Harry came to think about this adventure and how Morrison managed to railroad him into having a go at politics. The slavery theme continues on the Dahomey and in the slave states of the United States, only the slaves in those positions can't rise up in the way the factory and mine workers in England could. George MacDonald Fraser liked to make comments on the hypocrisy of those in power in Victorian England, and he does it in Flash for Freedom. On the one hand they decry slavery, although they know it goes on and they largely allow it to, no one ever looked close enough at Morrison's business to realise that he profited from slavery and his ship was captained by an Englishman. On the other hand they allow and profit from legalised slavery amongst their own in the factories and the mines that were often owned and run by the very same aristocracy that railed against slavery in the colonies.

I do like Flash for Freedom, clunky title aside, and it introduces some of the most memorable characters from the entire series: John Charity Spring and Susie Willinck are two of them, not to forget the elfin Missus Mandeville. It's a great rip roaring tale from a bygone somewhat genteel age with riverboats and bustling ports and a gold rush underway. I couldn't shake the thought at the end that Harry wasn't out of the States yet and it wasn't going to be as easy as he thought, so there was more to the tale than first thought.

Three down and lots more to go. Join me again in March when Harry Flashman leads the Light Brigade into the Valley of Death.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 14

In the 14th and final chapter of Flash for Freedom Harry Flashman once again finds himself in the familiar position of having to lie through his teeth to save his unworthy skin.

He's been effectively told by John Charity Spring's lawyer to perjure himself or risk public humiliation and probably incarceration, if not more serious penalties.

Harry feels his way through the hearing and manages to not answer any incriminating questions by saying that to do so would be to forgo his duty as a British naval agent against the slave trade. The hearing degenerates into a farce and the court has no option, but to find the classic quoting slaving captain not guilty as they can't see what to charge him with, seeing as the key witness is unwilling to speak out.

Flashman escapes further prosecution as Spring walks free, but he's still got the problem of how to get home. The American navy won't help, and he doesn't have sufficient funds to purchase a passage to England, so he does the most unexpected thing.

He approaches Spring and asks him for a lift! Spring's reaction is much the same as mine when I read this for the first time. Has Harry Flashman taken complete and total leave of his senses? Spring's more likely to murder him than agree to ferry him back home. However I had forgotten about Harry's ace in the hole. Comber's documents. Flashman tells Spring he has them, and that they are kept somewhere safe (Spring obviously doesn't think the wily soldier would be daft enough to carry them on his person), if Spring agrees to get him home, or close enough to, then he'll hand the documents over and that will be the end of their association. Spring agrees, but threatens to drop Harry over the side if he's lying and he doesn't much care where he has to do it.

The packet ends with Flashman gleefully anticipating his next meeting with his father-in-law.

I did say this ended on a cliffhanger, and it kind of does. Up until Flash for Freedom the accounts had finished with Harry getting back home as the conquering hero. Flash for Freedom doesn't. Harry's not home, not by a long shot, at the very least he's got a passage from New Orleans to England with a homicidal maniac to deal with.

There's a cutting from a British paper pasted at the end, it is John Morrison's obituary. One can only imagine Flashman's glee at learning he'd outlived his miserly father-in-law.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is one of the challenge books. I couldn't remember if I'd actually read it before or not. I read a number of similar books by Alan Garner's contemporaries when I was a kid. I couldn't remember any of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen this time around, so it's unlikely that I did read it, although I know I did read some Alan Garner.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is the first of Alan Garner's children's fantasy novels. It's set in the Cheshire area where Garner himself grew up, and I believe still lives in, and is largely based on local legends told to him by his grandfather.

Colin and Susan think that living in rural Cheshire with their mother's old friend Beth and her husband Gowther, while their parents are away overseas, will be a bit of an adventure. They don't realise exactly what sort of an adventure they're getting into.

Initially the hills near the farm, riddled with old copper mines and being mysterious and the site of so many stories and legends are a wonderful playground for two adventurous children, that is until they're chased by some queer little men and meet up with the legendary wizard Cadellin. It turns out that the legend of the sleeping warriors under the hill is true and that Susan has the legendary weirdstone in her bracelet, the stone that will waken the warriors, but cause untold trouble for the world if it falls into the hands of the Grimnir or the Morrigan and their allies.

It's a fast moving story with well defined characters. I was particularly impressed by Susan. Girls in stories from this era were often stereo typed as 'girly girls' who just tagged along with the boys and were largely a nuisance. Susan isn't. She takes the lead often and is the one who puts her brother Colin in his place. She's also the possessor of the weirdstone, so is referred to by Cadellin and his two dwarvish allies; Fenodyree and his cousin Durathror, as Stonemaiden. I could quite easily see Susan growing into someone like Catherine Velis (the heroine of Katherine Neville's marvelous book The Eight). Also coming up for a mention is the way Garner handled the adults in the story. Often I found adults in children's adventure or fantasies are pushed to one side as something inconvenient or too hard to deal with, either that or they're the villains of the piece. Alan Garner didn't do that and Gowther becomes one of the heroes of the piece.

To write The Weirdstone of Brisingamen Alan Garner combined local legends, Norse mythology, some Celtic mythology and even a little Arthurian legend to create a fresh and original story that has delighted readers for over 50 years.

If anyone wanted to read on or read something similar Alan Garner wrote a sequel called The Moon of Gomrath, plus a number of other books for children that are unrelated. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence is also similar in tone, although I wasn't greatly impressed reading the opening book; Over Sea Under Stone, as an adult.

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 13

Flashman spends most of Chapter 13 laying on his stomach, being shot in the backside will do that to you.

Cassy is looked after and sent off to Canada. Flashman actually says that of many of his ladies he formed less of a connection with her. I think partially because she used him as much as he uses others. There was also how driven she was when it came to getting her freedom and how she appeared to the socially progressive minded women who were determined to see her a free and independent woman.

Once again Abraham Lincoln can see right through Flashman. He doesn't for a moment believe he's a naval officer called Beauchamp Comber, but it suits his purposes to have everyone think he is, so he goes along with it. He also refers to Harry as a rascal, which is a rather mild word to use for someone who is a self confessed cheat, liar, coward and bully. Despite how hard he's tried to avoid it Flashman is sent back to New Orleans to testify against John Charity Spring and his employers. Flashman's testimony is now the only way they can convict anyone of anything. Mrs Spring threw all the documents overboard. Spring is claiming that the Balliol College was built in Baltimore and owned by a Mexican, they can't get him on slavery because the girls on board weren't chained at the time and I doubt most of them could speak enough English to testify to anything in any case.

Flashman's real problem is that if Spring and Co can prove he isn't Comber then he's going to be charged along with them. If he doesn't testify the Americans will probably lock him up for refusing to do so. He's not sure of what to do until he receives a visit from Spring's lawyer who strongly suggests to him in veiled language that he can save everyone and himself by lying under oath.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Michael Sullivan is one of a growing number of writers who found an alternate route to being picked by a major publisher (in this case Orbit). He self published his 6 book series The Riyria Revelations and after success online Orbit took a chance on him. They bought the series and put it out in 3 omnibuses, each containing 2 books. The first of these is Theft of Swords, which collects The Crown Conspiracy and its sequel Avempartha.

The Crown Conspiracy is to be honest rather cliched, it's almost as if the author read Diana Wynne Jones Tough Guide to Fantasyland and used it as the template for writing their own book.
Ruritainian type pre industrial world, check.
Warrior hero with a hidden past and a heart of gold, check.
Sarcastic thief type sidekick, also hiding a dark secret, check.
Naive young prince who needs to be shown the common side of life before realising how best to rule his kingdom, check.
Pretty, spunky young princess, check.
Sheltered cleric, whose wide eyed wonderment at the world around him provides comic relief, check.
Eccentric old wizard with far more power and information than at first believed, check.
A group of well connected villains, one of whom is a blademaster, check. Actually all the villains were missing were black hats, the occasional evil laugh and thin moustaches to twirl.
Now having said all that I actually enjoyed The Crown Conspiracy, yes it was cheesey and yes it relied heavily on cliches and walked some pretty well trodden territory, but it hung together remarkably well and was highly enjoyable to read. Michael Sullivan makes a few debut novelist mistakes, but he showed potential and left the reader wanting more, although The Crown Conspiracy is quite self contained. I like old fashioned adventure novels and that's exactly what The Crown Conspiracy is and at no stage does it pretend or attempt to be anything else.

Avempartha is a little different, I get the impression it was written some time after The Crown Conspiracy, it is less self contained and very clearly part of a larger ongoing series. Michael Sullivan has also improved as a writer and has come to know his characters, especially the two principals of Hadrian and Royce, better. The writing flows more and there are less things that pulled me out of the story.

Whereas The Crown Conspiracy was an old fashioned matinee adventure, with a few mentions of magic, a dwarf and an elf thrown in to remind readers this was a fantasy, Avempartha is surer of what it is. There are two stories which later converge and connect, but the biggest one of them concerns Hadrian and Royce agreeing to protect a village from a Beowulf style monster. I have no idea if Michael Sullivan really based this on the old English legend, or whether I'm just thinking that because I'd recently read John Gardner's Grendel, and it was fresh in my mind, but there did seem to me to be a lot in common with these two tales. Admittedly the beast plagueing Dahlgren; a rather dragonish creature called a Gilarabrywn, isn't like Grendel, but it acts in a similar manner.

Readers were treated to reveals about Hadrian and Royce, and the author wrong footed me when he unexpectedly killed off a character I thought may have made it to the end of this book at least.

Although people groan when they hear that The Riyria Revelations feature dwarves and elves, Sullivan has taken steps to make them differ somewhat from those written about by Tolkien and his imitators. Readers don't see many examples of either species in Theft of Swords. The snarky, but talented dwarf Magnus largely takes the role of comic relief in Avempartha, that was filled by cleric Myron in The Crown Conspiracy (I missed Myron in Avempartha, his observation that children really appear like small, drunk people was both startlingly accurate and laugh out loud funny, I hope he has a larger role in future adventures), and gives the impression that Sullivan's dwarves are somewhat more street smart and more mercantile than the dwarves Tolkien, Feist and Brooks wrote about. The elves in Theft of Swords are an underclass, they're reduced to begging or performing menial tasks to keep themselves alive, in some places they're enslaved and having elven blood is nothing to be proud of, but rather something anyone unfortunate enough to be in that position will do their level best to hide.

In terms of language use Sullivan does have a tendency to drop modern slang into his dialogue and it brings me out of the narrative briefly, so I hope that goes away in the future. I also hope he doesn't use anything resembling 'ye olde English' again. I was willing to overlook dotty old wizard Esrahaddon's mangling of it, because he's eccentric to start with and he's been imprisoned for many centuries, but the Gilarabyrwyn made the same mistakes, might be an idea to drop it now.

Despite it's failings, and my criticisms, I do like The Riyria Revelations and want to see what Michael Sullivan does with Hadrian, Royce and Princess Arista in future volumes. In this day and age when fantasists seem determined to outgritty each other and see who can come up with the most morally bankrupt anti hero, it's rather refreshing to read a story where the good guys aren't afraid to be good and the bad guys are genuinely bad, that has no pretensions about what it is and isn't afraid to present itself as exactly that.

One little note of amusement to me personally. There's a castle in this book called Essendon castle. I'm not sure where the author got the name from, maybe he made it up, but down here in Australia, or more specifically where I live in Melbourne, we have a suburb called Essendon and it's also the name of a successful and popular Australian Rules Football team that were originally based in the suburb. It makes me chuckle every time I read it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 12

Flashman and Cassy think they’ve got it made, they’re home free. Harry even reflects back on his journey: JC Spring, the slaving in Africa, Abraham Lincoln, the underground railroad, George Randolph, the Mandevilles and even the hellish experience in the back of the wagon. It’s all over, in very short order he’ll be heading back home to Elspeth and squeezing Morrison for every penny he can get. Yes, improbably, Harry had managed to hang onto his incriminating documents implicating his father-in-law in highly illegal activities.

This is all of course until he inquires of another passenger when they might be arriving in Louisville. He is told that the boat isn’t going to Louisville, it’s going to St Louis, they’re on the Ohio river, not the Mississippi. Missouri is a slave state, Flashman and Cassy are in no way out of danger. Cassy’s reaction is quite extreme when told, she even throws things at Harry. Harry realises his mistake. When he encountered the deaf old character at the port, the man only heard the word Louis and directed Harry to the St Louis steamboat, not the Louisville one.

Flashman placates Cassy, telling her that if they just lay low they can get passage from St Louis to Pittsburgh and they’ll still be free. They take a hotel room in St Louis and Harry ventures out to buy some necessities and a revolver and chances to see a wanted poster for he and Cassy. They’ve only got descriptions, not pictures, but they do tend to stand out. His alias of Tom Arnold is mentioned, so he changes this to Fitzhoward (no idea where that one came from) and they head off as soon as possible.

St Louis was a major port in the 1840’s and as such the city teems with a multitude of types, it was also a bit trading place, so it’s filled with all sorts coming and going, a great many of them heading west to search for gold in California. The author does a good job of describing the place and when reading one feels as if they are really there.

George MacDonald Fraser makes a note in the back that Flashman is as always maddeningly vague on dates, but this one seems to take place in early spring of 1849. Their boat has to put in before it’s intended destination and this makes both Harry and Cassy extremely anxious. They go to a hotel to stay until they can arrange for a ferry, but run into a group of slave catchers. They’re lead by a character who calls himself Buck and they’re looking for Cassy and the man who sold her. Cassy loses it and runs, Harry goes after her. Due to the time of year the river is still partially frozen and the two of them go across it, Harry gets shot in the backside in the process, it seems rather fitting that most of Flashman’s wounds are a result of him running away. If this passage sounds similar to people that’s because it is. It’s very similar to a part of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Fraser suggests that she used stories of Cassy and Flashman’s escape from the slave catchers for her anti slavery classic.

On the other side of the river they’re in a free state, but the slave catchers can and have come into those territories and legally removed escaped slaves and taken them back to their owners. Harry heard about Abraham Lincoln’s appearance at an event where the slavery question would be discussed, and he thinks if he can see Lincoln, the statesman will remember him, and offer them refuge and protection. That’s largely how it plays out, once Harry remembers what alias he was using when he met Lincoln, and even has the former lawyer facing down six armed slave catchers. Flashman muses that the speech he gave them was even better than the Gettysburg Address, once again teasing readers with a mention of the Civil War packets that unfortunately were never written.

Cassy’s free and Flashman is out of any immediate danger, but Lincoln will still want testimony in court from him and Harry went on the run in the first place to avoid that, so he’s not out of this just yet.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 11

In chapter 11 of Flash for Freedom Flashman is shackled, tossed in a wagon and taken off for sale somewhere. Things look pretty grim. He’s not alone in the wagon, he’s sharing it with a woman called Cassy.

At first looks Flashman thinks Cassy is white, and she’s probably more white than negro, but in the southern US states back then, a drop of negro blood counted more than any white blood, and you were racially classified that way. Cassy was what was generally referred to as a musteefino, or mustee, the plan was to pass Flashman off as the same. Initially Cassy refuses to believe that Flashman is white, scornfully telling him that ‘most of us stop saying that when we’re 10 years old!’ A look at his hands, more specifically his fingernails, convinces her of the truth.

Cassy’s story is one of the saddest I can remember reading in the Flashman books. She was born free, the daughter of a Creole father and his slave wife. He already had two sons by the time Cassy and her sister were born, and her mother raised the boys as if they were her own. When Cassy’s father died the boys repaid that kindness by selling their sisters and stepmother into slavery. Cassy found herself the property of a New Orleans madam, but she was not Susie Willinck, much crueller, and the terrified girl (she was 13 at the time) ran back to her brothers, who promptly imprisoned her and arranged for her to be returned to her owner. As punishment for running Cassy was taken to a ‘whipping house’ and given 10 lashes (the sentence was reduced in view of her age). One of the observers admired her courage and gave her a dollar. She got the receipt and was told by the madam to keep it as a ‘reminder’. She still has that receipt and her bill of sale in her possession when she meets Harry. I found the receipt very moving, written in a clumsy unlettered hand it reads: ‘Wensh Cassy. Ten lashys. Wun dollar.’ I don’t know if George MacDonald Fraser based Cassy’s tale of woe on a real account or a number of them, but it was very touching and sadly I don’t doubt that things like that did take place. The ‘whipping house’ concept was new to me (a place where owners could take their errant slaves for correction), but again it too was probably horribly real.

Between them Cassy and Flashman come up with a plan to get free. To be honest it’s mostly Cassy’s idea, generally Harry’s female accomplices are far more intelligent and resourceful than he is, which makes sense as he’s mostly bluff and bravado. The way she disposes of the two men who were transporting the pair of them actually scares Harry a little, but then given what she’s gone through he does understand it to an extent. Cassy initially suggests they take to robbery until they can get to freedom, but Harry has always baulked at that particular option, most of it is his natural cowardice asserting itself, but as he rightly points out, the robbery option is going to bring them unwanted attention and pursuit.

It is again Cassy who has the next idea in their audacious bid for freedom. She suggests that Harry pose as her master and auction her off to the highest bidder. Once she’s been paid for, he purchases passage on a northbound riverboat and she’ll escape from her holding pen and the two of them run to freedom. It seems risky, but it’s a decent if dangerous plan with a lot that could go wrong, however Harry has no better ideas and Cassy is certainly game. Her main problem is that she doesn’t trust people, especially men, white men in particular, so putting trust in Harry is hard for her. She does so because she has no other option. Harry’s largely bound to her for his own safety, so will see this through, scared though he may be.

The first problem is that the ticket seller at the riverboat is largely deaf and Harry can’t be sure he’s got the message across that the boat is bound for Louisville. He simply has to hope that the man heard him and told him the right thing. Again at the auction house there’s another conversation which clearly indicates that to the white slave owning populace their coloured workers were simply cattle. It’s really extraordinary to read it and it makes me shudder every time I realise they’re talking about people here.

Cassy fetches a good price and someone even tells Flashman that had he sold her in a bigger town he could have doubled his money. Once the transaction is completed, he goes shopping and sends someone to buy the riverboat tickets, this is a mistake he owns up to in hindsight, but then he did have to buy clothes for himself and Cassy so that she was less likely to be recognised. Cassy is late in getting to their renedevous, escaping was more trouble than she’d reckoned with and she was very nearly caught, plus they’ve got slave hunters out looking for her. With a mixture of threats and promises Flashman manages to get the girl to pull herself together and on the riverboat they fall into bed together.

Despite how clever, determined and courageous Cassy was I could never warm to her as one of Flashman’s ladies. I knew she wouldn’t betray him, but she was different to many of them. They were thrown together, he never pursued her and she never seemed to mean all that much to him, even though he admits she was very beautiful. A lot of their interaction seemed to be business as usual. I have to admit when I first read Flash for Freedom though I was worried that Harry may lose his nerve and leave her high and dry.

They seem safe now, so the book should be close to finishing, but it’s not, so what else can possibly go wrong now?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 10

Although Chapter 10 of Flash for Freedom is not the longest chapter in the book it is one of the most eventful.

Having escaped the riverboat with his skin still intact, unlike the luckless Randolph, who if the gun blast didn't kill him, the boat's paddle certainly did, Flashman has a decision to make. There are two banks he can make for. The shortest swim will put him on the Arkansas side, but that will be where he's most likely to be looked for, so he makes for the Mississippi bank.

Flashman's original intention is to work his way to the nearest port and then see if he can somehow scrape up passage home. Things don't work out quite that way and Harry finds himself living the life of a vagrant and cursing George Randolph's name with every breath. I have to say I agreed with him, if only Randolph had swallowed his pride for a few days both he and Flashman would have pulled it off and both been free to live the rest of their lives. I also wondered what had happened to the other 5 slaves with Randolph and how they had fared after the jig was up.

Harry hears of a plantation called Greystones who's driver has up and left for the diggings to make his fortune and decides to apply for the job. What he doesn't realise is that driving is a euphemism for overseer. It doesn't really make a lot of difference, even though it isn't what Flashman envisaged himself doing. Unsurprisingly for a bully Flashman makes a good overseer. He likens it to bullying the fags at Rugby, something else he was also good at.

Harry makes the best of his time at Greystones, the plantation owner; Mandeville, likes getting drunk with him and he installs a slave girl as his housekeeper and bedwarmer, although he does own she's not much good at either. The fly in the ointment comes in the form of the plantation's mistress; the elfin Annette Mandeville. Harry comes in from the field to find that Mrs Mandeville has ordered the girl be flogged. Harry's none too happy about it, but he accepts it as a spat between mistress and slave and installs another girl. However she meets the same fate. It's time for Harry to find out what is going on.

He had inklings that Annette Mandeville was greatly dissatisfied with her husband. She was well born and raised, her husband is a great deal older than her and while wealthy he is poorly educated and crude. Harry also believes he doesn't satisfy her in bed either. One thing leads to another and Harry and his mistress wind up in bed. One thing about Annette Mandeville ensures that Harry never forgets her. She wears boots and spurs to bed. Harry is acquainted with a hairbrush (Royal Flash), but not spurs. Eventually they are discovered by her husband and it all hits the fan.

The cuckolded plantation owner is all for stringing Harry up until a friend suggests a much worse fate. Harry has a dark complexion, he's passed for Indians and Afghans in the past. Mandeville's friend says that they can pass Harry off as a negro and living his life out as a slave would surely be a fate worse than death. Do you reckon things can get any worse?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 9

Flashman and George Randolph are loaded onto a riverboat for their journey to Ohio and freedom for George. In order to carry off their deception George has been shackled with 5 other negroes. The other 5 are free employees of Crixus and as committed to the abolitionist cause and the underground railroad as their employer is. One gets the impression by the way that they act like slaves being transported that they're relatively experienced in exercises like this and they are certainly less likely to be discovered in their deception than George, who doesn't seem to realise that his cooperation will be required to get him away.

A lot of the chapter talks about riverboat travel back in the golden ages of the form of transport. It's something that I think George Maconald Fraser would have liked to experience properly. Flashman certainly seems to enjoy it. He's less complimentary about the Mississippi itself. There is at least one tantalising mention of his Civil War experiences, this time on the side of the Union, as he quotes Ulysses S. Grant about the Mississippi: 'Too thick to drink, and too thin to plough. It stinks.'

The only real problem Flashman has is from Randolph. He simply refuses to behave like an owned man, demanding things of the overseer and speaking back to the man. It's obvious he's a good deal more edcuated than the overseer, and that seems to anger the man more, although he can't administer any punishment without Flashman's say so. The fact that Flashman in his guise as wealthy Englishman Prescott, wont actually do so, casts suspicion not just on George, but Flashman himself. Harry tries to reason with George, but he pigheadedly refuses to accept that his actions could unmask them all and never get him to freedom.

Despite George's behaviour things seem to be going along well until in a panic George tells Flashman that a man by the name of Peter Omohundro has boarded the boat. Omohundro is a slave trader, and he once sold George to a former master. If he recognises George then the game will be well and truly up. Flashman tells George to keep out of sight if he can and he will try and keep an eye on Omohundro. It does at least have the effect of ensuring that Randolph will pull his head in.

Fate conspires against them. Omohundro isn't on a buying trip, so doesn't have any real reason to visit the slave decks, but tells another traveller that he never misses an opportunity to see the type of slave the other man has. It's rather unsettling to read these men talking about people like they're cattle, and in fact I think Omohundro even refers to them as cattle at one point. It's rather stomach turning to think of really.

Unfortunately the impression George has made on the overseer leads the man to urge Omohundro to look at Flashman's coffle. He recognises George and the game is well and truly on. A panicked and desperate George tackles Omohundro and goes over the side. Flashman's last view of the man is him being hit by the paddle steamer's wheel, it's possible he was also shot. Flashy goes for the other side of the boat and dives into the Mississippi.

One cautionary note about this chapter, the 'n' word was thrown about very regularly during it. It's always used in context, but it seemed rather excessive to me.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Grendel by John Gardner

Grendel by John Gardner is the second of the G's. It's a rather interesting and unusual book.

As the title suggests it's related to the old English epic poem Beowulf. It takes the interesting approach of using the monster of Beowulf; Grendel, as the narrator.

Readers are privy to Grendel's thoughts and observations as he watches the people he torments. There's a lot of philosophising, most especially when Grendel meets a dragon. Whether this is the same dragon from the Beowulf legend is never explained, although it seems reasonable to think it may be, that is if it's not a figment of Grendel's active imagination, which at times is quite childlike.

The story covers what was happening with Hrothgar prior to Beowulf's arrival. The only warrior who really challenges the monster is Unfreth, but Grendel humiliates and makes fun of him. The book ends with Beowulf inflicting the mortal wound that killed Grendel.

It may have been intended to portray Grendel as somewhat sympathetic, but it didn't really work for me. I never bore Grendel any great animosity in any case, I just assumed that to a large extent he was simply following his nature. It's a clever idea and handled very well by Gardner. I found myself liking the character of the dragon most although he appeared only briefly. I liked his portrayal of the powerful, dangerous, gold loving creature as a rather cantankerous professor type. Gardner spent most of his life in academia and I do wonder if the dragon was based in part on an old teacher, one for whom he had a healthy respect and fear, of course when your teacher can breathe fire that would have the tendency to breed respect from their students.

For something similar you could try Beowulf, I believe there are translations or recreations in the old English, although these days that's uninteilligible unless like Professor Tolkien you have studied it. Beowulf was a huge influence on Tolkien and he studied it at length. I don't know if he ever read Grendel, it would have been interesting to find out what his thoughts were. It came out two years before Tolkien's death, so he possibly could have read it, although I find it unlikely. Roger Lancelyn Green did some great collections of myths for younger readers and he covered the Legends of the Norsemen, which is the type of thing Beowulf and therefore Grendel were based on. Curiously another work that I tend to liken to this one is Mark Lawrence's 2011 debut Prince of Thorns, that too is told from the point of view of a very unsympathetic protagonists, and I'm sure you could argue that in his own way Prince Jorg Ancrath is every bit as much a monster as Grendel is.

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 8

Flashman believed that the two men who approached him at the end of Chapter 7 were apprehending him on behalf of the navy. They are actually far from that. He's hooded and taken with them who knows where.

When the hood is removed he finds himself in a well furnished and appointed room facing a rather innocuous looking fellow. As the man begins to talk and outline what he wants Flashman to do and why, Harry knows he's in the presence of another fanatic like Bismarck. Flashman seems to have a knack for finding these types, it's rare for a book to go by without at least one of them appearing, they usually get Harry into all sorts of trouble, almost as much as his pursuit of women does.

This one goes by the name of Crixus, exactly who he really is, is never discovered, and he may have been a composite of a number of prominent abolitionists, I don't believe George MacDonald Fraser ever really speculates on his identity, even in the notes. Crixus is an abolitionist, part of a movement that was devoted to getting rid of the institution of slavery in the US. John Brown is one of their best known members, and his involvement with Harry Flashman is covered in another book (Flashman and the Angel of the Lord), I wonder if the seeds for that packet were sewn when Fraser was writing this one.

Crixus believes Harry is the anti slavery British naval lieutenant Beauchamp Comber and will jump at the chance to undertake the task they have him earmarked for. He is supposed to help them smuggle an escaped slave by the name of George Randolph out of the south and into the slave free north. By the time I read Flash for Freedom I had learned about Dred Scott and his famous case. Randolph is possibly in part based on Scott.

George Randolph is the sort of person Harry detests, irrespective of the colour of his skin, he's arrogant, vain and pompous. He's quite intelligent, but not especially worldly or street smart. From the time he opens his mouth he rubs Harry up the wrong way. Flashman can't refuse Crixus, he may look like a cheerful old buffer, but he's not where his cause is concerned. Flashman has met enough of his sort to know that if he knocks him back then his life will become a living hell, that's if Crixus even allows him to get out of the room alive. With no other option open to him Flashman agrees to do what they ask. At least with him being white and Randolph being black they won't have to travel together.

You'll Be Sorry When I'm Dead by Marieke Hardy

I first became aware of Marieke Hardy when someone alerted me to one of her regular columns in the The Age newspaper's weekly TV Guide The Green Guide. I think the first column of hers I read dealt with TV chef Nigella Lawson and Marieke's undying love for her and her bounteous breasts. I became a religious reader of Ms Hardy's column from that point on, they were screamingly funny and a highlight of the paper, it was a sad day when she left The Green Guide to pursue her other career in script writing for TV.

Marieke Hardy comes from a relatively famous Melbourne media family. Her great aunt was Mary Hardy, a popular radio and TV hostess in the 1970's, and her grandfather was journalist Frank Hardy, best known for his best selling novel Power Without Glory that was a fairly thinly veiled and largely true story of the tumultuous life and career of political power broker John Wren (he was called West in the book). Like her grandfather, and even her father, Marieke writes for a living. She's written a fair bit for papers and her own blogs, these days she spends most of her time working on TV scripts, she's had stints working for the perennial soap Neighbours and the runaway success Packed to the Rafters, she's also written for two shows of her own making; Last Man Standing and Laid.

As far as I know You'll Be Sorry When I'm Dead is her first book, and if it's anything to go on she's got a long career writing books ahead of her, fictional or not. Despite being in her mid thirties Marieke seems to have packed more than one lifetime of living into those 30 + years.

There are accounts of her experimentation with prostitutes and 'swinging', her encounter with a childhood idol and one of her adulthood as well, her experience as an accidental stepmother, the moving account of one of her best friend's ongoing battle with cancer and travels with and without her parents. The Fitzroy Football Club even cracks it for a mention. Marieke still seems to bare the scars of the AFL's murder of that once proud club. I'm not and never have been a Fitzroy follower, but it still irks me what the AFL did there.

When I read Barry Humphries' 'biography' of his alter ego Edna Everage I spoke about how he had really observed and written so well about the Melbourne of his early adulthood back in the 50's. Marieke does the same thing for life in inner city Melbourne in the 90's and 00's. I've known people like her friends, I can see the places she talks about, mainly because I know most of them, not as intimately as she does, but I am familiar with them. It's marvelous writing and captures the feel of where she is and what she's doing.

You'll Be Sorry When I'm Dead is by turns devastatingly honest, painfully accurate, deeply moving and most often of all hysterically funny. I wouldn't recommend reading it on public transport, people tend to look at you when you're breathless with laughter and have tears streaming down your face and most of them don't believe you when you hold up a book by way of explanation. That public humiliation aside I'd heartily recommend You'll Be Sorry When I'm Dead. As another great Australian writer; Cj Dennis, would have said 'I dips me lid.'.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 7

After a couple of fairly lack lustre chapters which I felt kind of trod water, and I’m convinced Chapter 6 only existed to introduce Abraham Lincoln into the narrative things pick up in Chapter 7, the narrative starts to move again and a new character is introduced, one of my favourites actually.

Although Harry thought Baltimore would be the ideal place to head for home I think New Orleans, or ‘Awlins as the locals call it, is better. As soon as his navy escort takes their eyes off him he simply melts into the crowd, and in New Orleans in the 1840’s a crowd was a very easy thing to disappear into. Flashman confesses to liking the port town. He rates it in his top 3, after London, which is his home, and Calcutta, which is his home away from home. I’ve been to New Orleans and I can see the appeal for someone like Flashman, wonderful town, lively, exotic place with an exciting history.

The first thing Flashman does he alter his appearance subtly. He’s grown a beard during his time at sea, so he has that removed, although he keeps his ‘tart catchers’ (those are his magnificent moustache or cavalry whiskers), and I love that name. Makes me giggle every time I read it. He also outfits himself impressively in a very European style and he even goes far enough to order some calling cards made in the name of Count Rudi von Starnberg, again a laugh out loud moment. It amuses Harry to think that somewhere down the track Rudi may get stuck with the bill for a stack of calling cards. Unlike many of Flashman’s innocent victims Rudi is a murderous, black hearted bastard, who deserves that and more. It also struck me here that Flashman isn’t great at coming up with aliases. He does the character well, just not the name. So far readers have seen him use people they’re already acquainted with. Thomas Arnold in Royal Flash and now Rudi. It’s kind of interesting, because he’s an accomplished liar, a large part of his life is a lie and he carries that off with style, but he can’t think up plausible sounding names. He basically sets himself up as an Austrian nobleman.

A large part of his resources have been used in altering his appearance and outfitting himself, he’ll need most of the rest to get passage back to England. He also doesn’t want to stay at a hotel, it would be the first place to look. He remembers the words of Italian soldier of fortune Avitabile, who he met in Flashman. If you find yourself short of funds in a city and need a place to stay for a bit, find a bawdy house and romance the madam. In New Orleans at the time, you would find it harder to find a normal house than a bordello. Flashman has concocted some wild story about a missing sister to get himself entrance and introduction to the madams. He discards the first few because he doesn’t much like the look of the ladies running the place until he lobs at Susie Willincks. Susie is from England, Flashman describes her broad accent as pure Bow Bells, which immediately aids Harry’s cause. Although she’s well past her prime and is fighting a losing battle with her weight, Susie is still a handsome woman and must have a beauty when younger. She takes to Flashman immediately, although she sees through his Austrian nobleman disguise, she does accept that he’s a British naval lieutenant called Comber.

Despite what she does for a living, and presumably always has, Susie is a bit of a soft touch. She’s a nice lady and has genuine feelings for Flashman, although she never finds out his real name, only knowing him as Lieutenant Beauchamp Millward Comber. Flashman has a soft spot for her too, but as is the case with many of his partners, she’s a means to an end, and sure enough as soon as he thinks he can he leaves the bordello and doesn’t look backwards. Next to Elspeth, Susie is my favourite of the never ending parade of women that float in and out of Harry’s life and adventures. Flashman thinks he’s home free, just get to the docks and the ship he’s arranged passage and off he goes. He never makes it that far. He’s accosted by two armed men who don’t seem inclined to listen to him. Just what has he walked into now?

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I've never actually read a Neil Gaiman novel before. I've read the first Sandman collection and Good Omens, there was also a poem in Welcome to Bordertown, but Sandman is a graphic novel and Good Omens was co written with Terry Pratchett, so I was looking forward to the opportunity the list provided me with to check out one of fantasy's hottest properties.

Neverwhere started life as a TV programme, although Gaiman himself said that every time they made him cut something from the programme he said he'd include it in the book. Neverwhere is Neil Gaiman's first actual novel, Good Omens came out some years earlier, but as pointed out above that was a co authored project.

It's the story of Richard Mayhew, an unremarkable young man, who stops to help an injured girl en route to a dinner with his pretty, but shallow and unpleasant fiancee; Jessica, and her powerful media mogul boss, and finds himself rubbing shoulders with all sorts of unusual types in the world of London Below (the Neverwhere of the title), while avoiding Messrs Croup and Vandemar; a team of assassins, who delight in inflicting pain.

Whilst in London Below Richard encounters all sorts of oddities. The creatures who lend their names to places he knows in London Above, the blacksmith who goes by the name of Hammersmith, the shadowy information trader Old Bailey and the Angel called Islington.

Richard is an interesting hero, mainly because he's not particularly heroic. He's not physically imposing, he goes about his daily business efficiently, but quietly, he shies away from any sort of conflict and he's easily rail roaded into things, he doesn't even particularly like Jessica, but he's going to marry her, simply because he doesn't know how to get out of the relationship, which he seemed to fall into by accident. He does however have heroic qualities about him. He's compassionate, he assists Door even though he doesn't have to and he knows it will cause problems with Jessica. He's brave, he hides Door from Croup and Vandemar even though they scare him and he knows that they can physically hurt him. He's loyal, he's the one who takes over when Hunter betrays her companions and him.

The setting was extraordinary although the language Gaiman used wasn't particularly remarkable, this may have been because the novel was essentially an adaptation of a TV show and the initial script relied upon the visual medium to convey to the watcher what they were seeing. London Below is at once strange, dark and dreamlike. There are elements of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Neverwhere, although it is darker than Lewis Carroll's work. Neil Gaiman may have a particular affinity with that classic, there is a scene in Sandman that shows a bookcase filled with books that were never written and one of those is a continuation of young Alice's adventures.

Once out of London Below and living his quiet life in London Above, although significantly improved from the one he left, Richard wants to go back to the world where rats talk and you meet mythical creatures at the Floating Market. He does find the world he left behind and the book closes with Richard returning to London Below.

Neil Gaiman hasn't written a sequel to any of his work, but he has occasionally considered returning to the Neverwhere concept. Things have been written, but not completed and it remains to be seen if a new installment will ever appear, it was left open ended enough that this is a possibility if the author ever wants to do so.

It shares similarities with a number of other hidden world type stories, the darkness recalls Clive Barker's Weaveworld, and Simon Green's Nightside series (beginning with Something From The Nightside) set in a hidden London, I read the first one of these and wasn't greatly impressed. I also kept flashing on Catherynne M. Valente's Hugo nominated work Palimpsest and can highly recommend that if for no other reason that an opportunity to read Ms Valente's amazing prose.

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 6

In Chapter 6 of Flash for Freedom, our anti hero has appropriated the identity of dead naval lieutenant Beauchamp Comber and convinced the American authorities that he was in fact trying to put an end to John Charity Spring's nefarious trade, not assist it. Having been shot in the back by Looney, JC Spring isn't in a position to argue or denounce Flashman. The documents Harry had sewn into his belt only help to prove the truth of his story.

Once in the US, Harry has to scheme how to get out again, and back to England. The last thing he wants to do is testify against Spring. There are two issues at stake for him. Unfortunately Looney didn't kill the pyschotic former scholar, so therefore Flashman is still a little afraid of what might happen to him if he testifies and has Spring convicted. Secondly Spring can quite possibly prove that Flashman isn't Comber, he may be able to get out of any charges, because he wasn't a registered crew member, being taken on as a supercargo, but the resulting fall out would ruin him back home.

He seems to be carrying his deception off quite successfully until he meets an interesting chap at a dinner party. He is described thus: 'He was an unusually tall man, with the ugliest face you ever saw, deep dark eye sockets and a chin like a coffin, and a black cow's lick of hair smeared across his forehead.' Now if that description hasn't given it away the man Flashman is referring to is Abraham Lincoln, at this stage he was not President, but serving his one and only term as a Congressman. George MacDonald Fraser was not only unflattering in his physical description of the revered President, he was equally blunt in his assessment via Flashman of the man's politics and character. Fraser's Lincoln is a practical man, blunt in his speech and forthright with his opinions. In fact Flashman believes they are both rogues, they just go about things differently.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the few men who sees right through Flashman, and knows he isn't a naval lieutenant. He also believes that he's not as honourable or as innocent as he would like people to believe, although later actions in this and other books indicate that he had fallen for the hero myth that Harry creates for himself. It suits Lincoln's purposes to not expose Flashman as a fraud, he's still needed to testify against Spring.

There's two places where Flashman may end up; Baltimore or New Orleans. He'd prefer Baltimore as he feels he can get away easier from that port, but he's required at New Orleans, so that's where he's shipped off to and where he plans his escape from.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 5

Chapter 5 is by far the shortest so far, although it still has a lot happening in it. They unload their cargo and take on a number of mixed breed girls, destined for New Orleans bordellos. Flashman is allowed to keep Lady Caroline Lamb, because Spring believes that if Harry can teach her English then she'll be valuable as an interpreter.

Once again the Balliol College is pursued by American Navy ships. This time there is more than one and they're far more determined and better armed than the one off the coast of West Africa.

Despite being a good captain Spring isn't certain he can throw these ones off and is determined that he won't be caught with slaves aboard. He orders his men to connect the girls to a length of chain and throw them overboard if it looks like they're going to be caught. If there's no evidence of slaves on the boat they can't be prosecuted. Even Flashman is horrified at this level of callousness, although the notes do mention that worse had been done in reality. Spring's first mate also argues this with him.

Flashman has a plan, but it won't work if Spring tosses the girls overboard. The only person aboard who had ever really shown Looney anything approaching decent treatment was Sullivan (Spring's first mate). Harry points out the argument to Looney, and tells the poor man that Spring is going to kill him if someone doesn't stop the psychotic captain. This for once isn't the case, but poor Looney swallows it and goes after JC Spring.

The actions allow the American's to catch up to the slaver and Flashman immediately begins to act like an officer in charge. He's definitely got something in mind. Devious chap that he is.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Flash for Freedom - Chapter 4

After ALL of the action in Chapter 3, Chapter 4 is a bit of a come down. A lot of it concerns itself with the business of preparing, loading and then transporting the cargo of the Balliol College. I guess at the time Flash for Freedom came out, the finer details of slave trading didn’t exist outside of non fiction. By the time I read it, I’d seen TV programs featuring it and read a number of books, including an excellent children’s book the name of which escapes me (it may have been Slave Dancer) that dealt with the same subject, so it was a bit old hat for me and not of much interest. I was struck this time by how Flashman describes these situations, but does so in a totally self centred way. It’s never about the ordeal others are going through, more about how it affects him personally.

Once underway there’s a rather half hearted chase by an American ship, they also tally up the ‘butchers bill’ and it’s worked out that, not including the cabin boy, they lost 5 men in the engagement on the beach. No one believes Comber will survive either, if for no other reason than Mrs Spring has volunteered to nurse him.

The men are encouraged to avail themselves of the female slaves, apparently if it can be proved that they’re ‘breeders’ it increases their value on the block. Flashman adopts one young lady, and unable to learn her language, teaches her both an English phrase and a Latin one, he does the latin to annoy John Charity Spring, he also christens her Lady Caroline Lamb, because it amuses him. The real Caroline Lamb was an aristocrat and novelist who had an affair with Byron, she died in 1828, so I’m not really sure why Flashman gave the girl that name unless his family was somehow connected to the woman. Maybe Buck had an affair with her, as well.

There is an incident involving Charity Spring that is going to have ramifications for the story later on. The ship has a mentally disabled cabin boy and general dogsbody they name Looney. The rest of the crew generally make fun of him or use him as a punching bag. Charity Spring as he tends to do takes it too far, and it alters the boy’s personality.

Comber dies of his wounds, but before doing so asks to see Flashman and makes a deathbed confession. He’s not a sailor who signed on with a slaver because of some scandal. He’s actually a British naval lieutenant collecting information with the intention of prosecuting all involved. When he realises he’s going to die he pegs Flashman as the person who can continue his work. Flashman comes into possession of the documents that not only can sink John Charity Spring, but also point to John Morrison as profiting from slavery. Flashman hides the paperwork by sewing it into his belt, but determines that it will make for an excellent way of squeezing his father-in-law when he gets back to England.

The Balliol College arrives to a chaotic scene in a Cuban port, because gold has just been discovered in California and everyone and their dog is off to stake a claim.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Empire by Jeremy Paxman

I occasionally like to break my steady diet of fantasy up with some non fiction and Jeremy Paxman's Empire is one such volume. I saw it and the idea intrigued me. It's subtitled What ruling the world did to the British.

While it is a fascinating look in how the British built their empire up from the days of piracy in the Caribbean until when it all came crashing down not long after WW 2, it doesn't really accomplish the stated aim of investigating how the conquest affected the conquerors, more how they affected the rest of the world.

That in itself is quite interesting. I've studied a bit of history, and so had read some of what was in Empire, although this certainly put flesh on the bones of what I already knew. The one exception was the Indian Mutiny in the 1850's, when the sepoys revolted, that's covered at length and in more detail in Flashman in the Great Game, and yes while Harry Flashman is fictional, the extensive research undertaken by his creator George MacDonald Fraser when he places his hero in the middle of certain events, is not.

The chapters while both educational and entertaining were written in a somewhat flippant almost tabloid style, (as Paxman is a journalist this may not be all that surprising), and preferred to focus on the atrocities committed by the British in a fairly lurid way at times. The final conclusion is that Britiain discovered like others before them, that the bigger your empire gets the harder to hold onto it, it is.

I don't doubt that British forces made mistakes and that they committed some awful atrocities in the name of Empire and oppressed native cultures, and in one case, actually wiped one out, I know that they did, I would have liked to see a less biased, more even handed account.

As I said it's an entertaining read, but should be approached with an open mind.