Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I'd never actually read The Princess Bride. I'd seen the film a few times, but never read the book on which it was based.

Until I picked it up to read it fairly recently I thought the book was in fact an adaptation of the film, not the other way around. It may have been William Goldman's name that convinced me of this. Goldman has had a great career in Hollywood, he's written a number of books that have been made into films and also been involved with other big box office successes.

You start to get the impression that it's a huge joke just from looking at the cover. The copy I read is advertised as William Goldman's Hot Fairytale Classic. The book is summed up at the back in this way: 'What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince in the world - and he turns out to be a son of a bitch?'

Goldman's introduction has to be read. In most cases to things like this you can skip the introduction, not The Princess Bride. William Goldman talks about how he encountered classic Florinese fairytale The Princess Bride by M. Morgenstern when his Florinese immigrant father read it to him, but didn't find out until years later when he gave a copy of the book to his son that his father had left out a lot of the original to make it more interesting for him. The joke is that there is and never has been any such place as Florin, William Goldman did not have a son (he had two daughters), and there is no such book in the world as The Princess Bride by M. Morgenstern. Goldman goes on to say that a lot of the Morgenstern version was dry satire on the European aristocracy, so he cut a lot out to produce his abridged version.

He manages to skillfully continue this conceit through most of the book, in fact the chapters that aligned more with the film than the fictional fairytale, were the least successful for me. William Goldman's italicised and parenthetical interludes were actually reminiscent of Terry Pratchett's footnotes. There was a lot of Pratchett in Goldman, or should that be the other way around.

If you've only ever seen the film The Princess Bride then you're doing yourself a great disservice if you don't read the book on which it was based. You'll come away with a totally different view of the cult classic and probably an enhanced, enriched experience.

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 12

The 12th and final chapter of Flashman at the Charge is one where not a lot happens. It's really just a way of wrapping up the adventure.

Before that can happen though readers have to find out why Harry was so insanely brave in the previous chapter. Flashman himself wants the answer to that one. It bothers him, his cowardice is a part of him, it''s kept him alive many a time. The person best placed to answer this is the Silk One, she was the last person he saw before he turned into Harry the Brave.

As usual she skirts around issue, carrying on one of her seemingly nonsensical conversations with the kitten. Harry begs her to talk to him and not the cat, and she does. She refers again to the Old Man of the Mountain, she had asked Flashman about him before and Harry had admitted the name meant nothing to him. What the Silk One is referring to is Hassan el Sabbah, often referred to as the Old Man of the Mountains. He is covered in Fraser's notes. Hassan el Sabbah began the cult of the Assassin. They were originally known as hasheesheen which was altered to assassin. They were in the habit of taking opium before they killed. The Silk One was aware of this and even knew how to administer opium to produce the desired result.

She needed a brave Flashman to help Yakub Beg. Unlike many others Ko Dali's daughter knew Harry was a coward, she doesn't see it as a weakness, fear to her isn't necessarily that, all men have fear in them she says. However a cowardly Flashman wasn't going to get the job done against the Russians, so she put opium in Harry's kefir and his bravery at the fort was the result.

Harry leaves soon after and is given an Afghan escort by Yakub Beg. There's a rather poignant passage when they reach Kabul, and Harry goes through the British base at the city remembering events from Flashman. The book ends with Harry, dressed in full native costume, arriving at Peshawar trying to convince the British troops there that despite all appearance he is Colonel Harry Flashman of the 17th Lancers.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Lies of Locke Lamora read along - week 4

Welcome to week 4 of Travels Through Iest's read along of The Lies of Locke Lamora, this week our questions come from SF Signal.
The action really heats up in this section of the book, so the questions become very intriguing. Please read on to see my impressions from the 4th part of The Lies of Locke Lamora.

1. In the chapter “A Curious Tale for Countess Amberglass” we
learn of the tradition of the night tea in Camorr. I found that not so
much fantastical as realistic – how about you?

The tea was in many ways to me reminiscent of the British custom of high tea. This was another example of 19th century Britain meeting Renaissance Venice, which was how I felt about the rather Faginesque character of the Thiefmaker at the start of the book. Having seen the marvellous Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey I can’t help but picture her as Dona Vorchenza whenever I read this scene.

2. When Jean meets with what will become the Wicked Sisters for
the first time, the meeting is described very much like how people
feel when they find their true work or home. Agree? Disagree? Some of

Oh yes, Jean’s first encounter with the Wicked Sisters was a real water shed moment for the character. This is where Jean realises exactly what his role with the Gentleman Bastards and Locke specifically will become. Some people are good at talking (Locke) and other people are good at hitting/killing things to make them shut up (Jean). There’s a quote from Jean at some point in the book (not sure if it’s been passed or not, so don’t want to spoil anyone by using it) which sums him up perfectly.

3. Salt devils. Bug. Jean. The description is intense. Do you
find that description a help in visualizing the scene? Do you find
yourself wishing the description was occasionally – well – a little
less descriptive?

Scott describes these scenes so viscerally and so well. I’m right in there with his description. I love the rawness of it. I’m also an arachnophobe, so my skin crawls when reading about the salt devils. I still love it. Less descriptive? Hell no! Admittedly I don’t think he could be more descriptive.

4. This section has so much action in it, it’s hard to find a
place to pause. But…but.. oh, Locke. Oh, Jean. On their return to the
House of Perelandro, their world is turned upside down. Did you see it

No, I never saw it coming. It hit me so hard. It hits me every time I reread the book, even though I know it’s coming. I couldn’t say it earlier, but that scene where they do their Liar/Bastard schtick before Locke impersonates the Grey King, it makes me cry. It’s the last time they’re ever all together as a group. It’s the last time they see each other alive. I hurt for Calo, Galdo and Bug…oh God especially Bug.

5. Tavrin Callas’s service to the House of Aza Guilla is recalled
at an opportune moment, and may have something to do with saving a
life or three. Do you believe Chains knew what he set in motion? Why
or why not?

Chains routinely taught all his ‘apprentices’ how to operate as various holy men. He may have felt Jean of them was best suited for Aza Guilla, but I don’t think he ever anticipated exactly how the service would be used. No one ever saw the Grey King coming. Even Chains, if he had seen it coming he would have warned them, and not cryptically. He knew he was going to make them damned good conmen, possibly the best even Camorr had ever seen, but this fight with the Grey King, he never saw that.

6. As Locke and Jean prepare for Capa Raza, Dona Vorchenza’s
remark that the Thorn of Camorr has never been violent – only greedy
and resorting to trickery – comes to mind again. Will this pattern

The Thorn of Camorr has never had to fight for his very existence before. Locke has the capacity for violence within him, but he generally doesn’t have the ability or the need to commit it. Locke is a cornered rat and cornered rats bite.

7. Does Locke Lamora or the Thorn of Camorr enter Meraggio’s
Countinghouse that day? Is there a difference?

The Thorn and Locke were separate entities when he was running the game. Locke kept them separate in his head, but there’s a lot of Locke in the Thorn and vice versa. By the time he has to go into Meraggio’s the Thorn and Locke are one and the same.

That was what I thought, I'll be intrigued to see what other people have to say.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Every year it seems that there’s a huge buzz around one debut novelist and their work. In 2012 the novelist is Saladin Ahmed and the book is Throne of the Crescent Moon. Although Throne of the Crescent Moon is his first novel, Saladin Ahmed isn’t an entirely new name in the SFF field, his short work garnered him a nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010 and 2011.

To be totally honest I was probably always a lock for Throne of the Crescent Moon from the first time I heard about it and saw Jason Chan’s awesome cover (it displays the three main protagonists; Adoulla, Raseed and Zamia, and does so faithfully, right down to Raseed’s two pronged sword, although I never really saw Adoulla as an overweight balding Moses, which is what he looks like here), and then found out it was Arabian Nights in tone and theme. I love Arabian Nights flavoured stuff. I think it’s a tragically under utilised setting and mythology in SFF. I was also interested and pleased to see Saladin Ahmed list Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman amongst his influences in a recent exchange on i09. Weis and Hickman are best known for their Dragonlance work, but my favourite, and in my opinion, best work was their Rose of the Prophet trilogy which was also very Arabian Nights in tone and setting. So Saladin was always on a winner with me for Throne of the Crescent Moon.

Adoulla is an aging ghul hunter based in his beloved city of Dhamsawaat, Adoulla believes he’s the only genuine ghul hunter in the city, it’s possible he’s the only real one in all the Kingdoms of the Crescent Moon. Life isn’t getting any easier for the scholar and he’s starting to consider retirement. Maybe hand the business over to his deeply religious ‘apprentice’ Dervish Raseed. Then Adoulla can spend his days drinking cardamom tea in his friend Yehyeh’s tea shop and woo Miri, the ‘one that got away’.

However things rarely go as planned in Adoulla’s long and eventful life, and before too many pages have passed Raseed has uncovered a new and particularly vicious threat, that will not only cause problems for Adoulla and his friends and neighbours, but the entire city of Dhamsawaat unless it is tracked down and defeated.

Doing this will bring Adoulla and Raseed in contact with the fierce young tribeswoman Zamia, who has lost her clan to the threat, it will destroy Adoulla’s home, put his friends and neighbours, the Soo couple; Dawoud and Lizat in danger and introduce them all to the annoyingly charismatic and competent thief lord; the Falcon Prince.

This is a real swashbuckler and an absolute joy to read. Saladin Ahmed does not miss a beat with his characterisation or his setting. Adoulla initially put me in mind of Barry Hughart’s flawed Asian scholar and detective Master Li, but as I read on I started thinking he was more like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, he has that same world weariness and complete and total lack of respect for authority, like Butcher’s Wizard for Hire he does a nice line in snark, too, although delivered in the very lyrical style that the book is written in. Adoulla’s is also middle-aged, which is a refreshing change of pace from the oh so young heroes that generally people the pages of SFF novels. He has Raseed and Zamia to do that for him. Like Scott Lynch in his debut The Lies of Locke Lamora, Saladin Ahmed builds up his setting of Dhamsawaat lovingly and it comes to life through the pages, you can feel the midday heat and the evening cool, smell the spices and the stench from the tannery that wafts through the down at heel Scholar’s Quarter on a daily basis. Like Lynch’s Camorr, Ahmed’s Dhamsawaat is an extra bonus character for readers.

I thoroughly enjoyed Throne of the Crescent Moon and look forward to seeing more tales of this middle eastern world. My only complaint is that the book was too short and I’ll have to wait a while before I can visit Dhamsawaat again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 11

George MacDonald Fraser never gave the chapters in his Flashman books titles, but if he had then chapter 11 of Flashman at the Charge could very well be titled: Harry the Brave.

Our anti-hero is leaving the Silk One’s chambers when he runs into Yakub Beg and Izzat Kutebar, the warlord and the bandit leader are both fuming because Beg’s overlord has refused to give them any military support for their plan to torpedo the Russian powder boats from with the enemy using the Russian’s own ammunition, and this is where readers first notice some very unFlashmanlike behaviour from Great Britain’s most cowardly soldier. Instead of heaving a sigh of relief, trying to dissuade his allies from taking any unsupported action and seeing if they’ll get him an escort back to British held territory, he actively assists them in trying to whip up support for the action. Admittedly his stirring speech, which may have actually been given in English, sounds more like something aimed at Rugby’s First XI when they’re trailling badly at half time than what you’d say to a desperate band of tribesman battling for their way of life, but Flashy’s heart, which seems to have grown a size or two, is in the right place.

He backs the words with actions. When Yakub Beg, Izzat Kutebar and the Silk One lead their 5,000 strong force against the Russian camp Flashman is riding right alongside them shouting ‘Tally Ho!’. He’s actually rather put out when he realises that Yakub Beg will be having all the ‘fun’ fighting the Russians, while he, Kutebar and Ko Dali’s daughter will be liberating and aiming the rockets. Flashman does seem a little surprised to find out that the rockets are Congreves and remarks that someone in London has lined their pockets selling British arms to the Russians. At this stage readers are wondering if George MacDonald Fraser temporarily took leave of his senses and thought he was writing about a genuine hero, rather than a bounder and craven like Harry Flashman. Harry helps them fire off all the rockets, seemingly having a great time. In fact he likens the experience to an insane kind of Guy Fawkes night. They manage to set two of the powder boats on fire before the go down they’re in is hit by Russian fire and they have to run for it.

They all pile into a boat and make their way back. Yakub Beg is pleased that they took out two boats, but is arguing with Kutebar about how many men he lost for an inadequate return when the biggest of the boats seemed to escape the barrage, it’s about then it goes up in a huge explosion, which nearly upsets their boat and delights Izzat Kutebar. The only aspect of his character that Harry seemed to retain was a distinct randiness, he spent a lot of the chapter trying to come to grips with the Silk One, that’s when he wasn’t baying for Russian blood.

Very odd chapter, it was almost like one of Flashman’s fever dreams, and it still remains one of the funniest I’ve read just for Flashy’s sheer insane bravery and his whole gung ho attitude.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Replay by Ken Grimwood

The problem with the must read list is that it can sometimes be a bit of a lucky dip. I do get books I’ve already read and others by authors I’ve always wanted to read, but never had the opportunity until the name came up on the list, but I sometimes get others that I either don’t enjoy or wonder why they’re on the list in the first place. Ken Grimwood’s name and his book Replay set some of my alarm bells ringing. I’d never heard of the author or the work and that often makes me wonder why. Replay did win a World Fantasy Award in 1987 when it came out, and I believe it’s success allowed the author to concentrate on writing full time, but it certainly hadn’t ever appeared on my radar before even when it was originally published. From the little bio and précis in the book it didn’t really sound very fantastic.

I’m happy to report that my fears in this case were entirely unfounded. Replay is an awesome book. It is fantasy, but not in the way that many outside the genre define it, actually quite a few within it wouldn’t define it in this way. There is no magic, no swords, no fantastical otherworlds. Replay is the story of an ordinary man called Jeff Winston, living his day to day life in our world, or one very like it…over and over again.

Replay begins with it’s main character; Jeff Winston, a middle aged news executive at a local radio station at his desk, dying of a heart attack. When Jeff comes to it’s 1963, he’s 18 and in his first year of college. His entire life is ahead of him again. How many of us have ever looked back and wondered what if when it comes to the choices we’ve made in life? Jeff uses his knowledge of the future to amass a large fortune and fashion a better life than the one he left behind. Despite being wealthy, successful and powerful the only thing that brings him any real happiness is his daughter Gretchen (Jeff and his wife Linda were childless in his first life), and then just when he is happy with Gretchen he dies again. Same age, same day and in the same fashion and again he wakes up in 1963 at the age of 18.

He starts over again and this time he marries his college sweetheart; Judy, and they have a happy and fulfilling life together, they adopt two children, then despite taking all the right precautions Jeff dies of a heart attack at the age of 43, and once again is in 1963. Miserable and becoming frustrated by his inability to life his life to it’s logical conclusion he falls into a hedonistic life style of drugs, alcohol and casual sex, until a near miss in a plane crash drives him to a hermetic existence of solitude. One day while picking up supplies in the town nearest to his farm Jeff sees an advertisement for a film called Starsea, it is runaway success, the thing about it that interests Jeff is that it is out of time for him and it heralds the beginning of the careers of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas before either man was meant to experience the sort of success they later would achieve. This leads Jeff to the film’s creator Pamela Phillips, who is, like him, another ‘replayer’. This is where Replay turns into a love story.

Jeff and Pamela are soul mates, they live and die and always find each other somehow. They live many lives, but never stop loving each other even when they irrevocably alter the course of the past with their knowledge of the future, until they both die one final time.

Replay is a fantasy, a time travel adventure, it has elements of a thriller, an alternate SF novel and a romance. It’s got an unseen, extraordinary end and it has real human characters that the reader can identify with.

I was enthralled all the way through and was reading compulsively, how I never discovered this book before I do not know. The two concepts that most immediately spring to mind are both from screen, TV and film. It at first reminded me in some ways of the 1980's and 90's TV show Quantum Leap, in which the central character Dr Samuel Beckett kept leaping from body to body within his own life span in an effort to finally get back home for good. The other one was Groundhog Day, Jeff's situation was similar in that he was forced to relive the final 25 years of his life over and over. In terms of books the closest thing I can think of is Connie Willis' Hugo award winning Blackout/All Clear, in which time travelling historians go back to wartime England and are at pains to try and not effect events whilst observing them.

Highly recommended. Replay is about the best book I've read off the list.

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 10

As a guest and soon blood brother of Yakub Beg, Flashman is treated considerably better by his Tajik ally than he ever was by Ignatieff. Beg’s stronghold of Kokhand is actually quite nice as described by Flashman, and he feels rather at home there. Beg becomes his blood brother, a ritual he was already familiar with having experienced it once before with Ilderim Khan in Flashman. He is free to pass his time with Izzat Kutebar, another scoundrel Flashman enjoys the company of. He actually muses that if things had been different Kutebar and Pencherjevsky would have been great friends. I liked Kutebar as a character, at one point he speaks about the desirability of a Tashkent melon, a delicacy about which it is said the Caliph would give his entire harem for. Kutebar is less extravagant, he would offer 5 or 6 of his best slave girls, but only if it were a very good melon.

What Flashman really wants is to be allowed to get into Afghanistan and then find his way to a British command post either in Afghanistan or Northern India. He even has an amusing little fantasy about delivering the much needed news to high command, it proving to be the saviour of the empire and he winds up with a knighthood out of it, and manages to put more than a little mud on East’s reputation for leaving him behind as well. Harry really wants a knighthood, the Who’s Who at the start of the books shows that he eventually gets one, but this is when he starts to want one. I don’t know if this was because his wife had a baronetcy that her miserly father bought for her and he wanted to equal it, or whether he just desires glory and as much of it as he can get.

He winds up sitting in Yakub Beg’s war councils and this is where the Silk One becomes important. She’s a great character. It’s debatable as to whether she was real or not. It’s highly likely that she was, but she’s also greatly fictionalised. She’s the daughter of a Chinese warlord called Ko Dali, so she is also often referred to as Ko Dali’s daughter. Her features betray her Mongol heritage, although many of the people in that part of Central Asia (modern day Uzbekistan) have some sort of Mongol blood as the entire area was once part of Genghis Khan’s empire. She spends her time in the councils playing with a Persian kitten, and offering unasked for advice as she carries on a conversation with the kitten. She’s the one who comes up with the plan to invade the Russian camp and use some of their Congreve rockets to blow up the arriving powder boats, thus delaying the Russian invasion. The Congreves are where Flashman comes in. He knows about them, he spent time in ordnance before being sent to the Crimea and knows how to use them, anyone can do it, but Flashman has acquired expertise and the whole venture will be more successful with that. Harry being Harry tries his best to weasel out of it and because of the debt Beg and Kutebar owe him they’ll let him out of it, not so the Silk One.

She invites Harry to tea with her and seduces him. The thing with the kitten is priceless, she talks to the animal all the time, never calls it the same thing twice: it is ‘little cruelty’, ‘butcher of tiny mice’, ‘wanton of the walls’ and so on. It’s actually rather reminiscent of Gail Carriger’s urbane Victorian vampire Lord Akeldama in her Parasol Protectorate and the various appellations he has for that series’ heroine Alexia Tarabotti/Maccon. After the love making the Silk One offers Flashman kefir (a fermented milk drink) and he rather enjoys it, including the unusual musky taste. He leaves the room feeling a new man, somehow braver, more reckless.

Harry says that the Silk One intimidates him, he claims that strong women do that. I found this a little at odds with what readers know of him in the 3 books so far. Lola Montez; one of the loves of his life, is a strong woman, Cassie; the escaped slave in Flash for Freedom, had no problems cutting a man’s throat to get free, even Elspeth is in her own way a very strong lady, not that Harry ever recognises or acknowledges it. I guess they’re a little different to Ko Dali’s daughter in that they won’t be wielding a sword or horseback or leading a death or glory rescue attempt, but they are strong ladies in that mould. I could have read an entire book about the Silk One, hopefully someone will write one about a similar character, she shares a lot in common with George R.R Martin’s heroine Daenaerys Stormborn Targaryen (Martin is a Flashman fan, so it’s possible she the Silk One helped him form the character of Dany). Fraser has a great deal of affection for these little known footnote characters in history and it would have been wonderful to see him do more on Yakub Beg, Izzat Kutebar and the mysterious Silk One, we do have to feel privileged for what we get in Flashman at the Charge, though.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Home Improvement - Undead Edition edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner

Home Improvement - Undead Edition, was one of those anthologies I mentioned in the review of Westward Weird.

Like all anthologies Home Improvement - Undead Edition has the usual collection of stories that sometimes hit the mark and other times fall well wide of it, depending on personal taste. Charlaine Harris has leant her name to a number of these recently, trading on the success of her Sookie Stackhouse series (filmed by HBO as True Blood), and the theme this time is home renovation. Although it sounds like it may be hard to get a good collection out of that premise they succeed by and large and seem to find it easier than some of the other premises that may initially sound to have more scope to work with. I'll cover the contents story by story.

The opener: If I Had a Hammer by Charlaine Harris, is centred around her Sookie Stackhouse character. I haven't read the books, but I have seen the show, so I'm familiar enough with the characters. I found the story about a possessed house a little disappointing and very run of the mill. I may have reacted better to it if I were a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse stories.

Victor Gischler, who wrote Wizard Home Security, was not an author I know, but I believe he's done some work on the X-Men comics. The story set in a fantasy world where even wizards need magical type security on their dwellings was different for this sort of collection, it had a couple of appealing characters and a nice twist at the end. He has plans to develop the concept into a book and I'll be keeping an eye out for it.

Patricia Briggs is one of the more successful urban fantasy authors in the field today. Gray was my first encounter with her work, it read rather like Cherie Priest's recent Cheshire Red duology, although I thought Priest did a better job. Not something that would encourage me to read more Patricia Briggs.

I've seen a few less than enthusiastic responses to Rochelle Krich's Squatters Rights, I won't be one of them. I loved this. For mine it was the best story in the book. A standalone fable about a possessed house that turns the occupants on each other, encouraging one to kill the other. It had echoes of American Horror Story, and it was very well done. A suitably chilling end was very clever.

Having written over 150 books it's hard not to have heard of Heather Graham (it's not the same person as the actress), and while I'd heard the name I hadn't ever read her before. I really didn't like Blood on the Wall, it was fine when it was about a nerdy kid who discovered that claiming he could summon demons and gain a cult following was good for turning the tables on the bullies and getting girls to sleep with him, but once they introduced the alpha male vampire detective character the whole thing turned into a pretty predictable paranormal romance. I was barracking for the bad guys in this one.

The Mansion of Imperatives by James Grady was also fairly predictable. There's only so many evil houses one can buy.

Melissa Marr used a little heard of branch of the fae for The Strength Inside and I have to say I liked it and it's tale of dealing with councils and militant home owners organisations. Nicely twisted ending, too.

Woolsley's Kitchen Nightmare by E.E Knight seemed set within the author's Vampire Earth concept. It was a fast moving tale that seamlessly inserted the reader into the concept and was very tongue in cheek for most of it. I'd love to meet one of the six armed bartenders.

For me of course the highlight was Through This House by you guessed it: Seanan McGuire. This was set in Seanan's Toby Daye series. It featured 3 of my favourites from the series; Toby's Fetch May, bridge troll and cab driver Danny and young Tuatha de Danaan noble Quentin. It also filled in a small blank between books. It was fun without being special. It's always nice to visit with Toby and friends.

The Path by S.J Rozan moved a little slow for mine, it was different in that it examined an Asian setting, but other than that struggled to hold my attention.

Stacia Kane's Rick the Brave seemed to set within one of her series concepts and did not grab me at all. There's a depressing sameness about many urban fantasy and paranormal romance concepts and this one fell into that.

I've been meaning to look at Suzanne McLeod's series and Full-Scale Demolition was set in that world, and is set before the series opener had enough to do in it to keep me entertained and has prompted me to give a try.

I've read a bit of Simon R. Green before and It's All in the Rendering which was a standalone was delightful. In some ways it was a little like John De Chancie's Castle series. I don't think he's adapted it into a series, which is a shame, because I'd definitely read more about these characters and setting. You have to love a house set in two worlds, where Grendel and the Leanan Sidhe are house guests.

The other editor Toni L.P Kelner finished the collection off with In Brightest Day. It was a voodoo based tale, I don't know what it is about voodoo, but it just doesn't excite me. I had the same problem with Laura Resnick's Unsympathetic Magic.

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 9

The occupants of the cell Flashman was thrown into at the end of chapter 8 of Flashman at the Charge, play a much larger role in chapter 9.

Central asia, and the area Flashman is in seems to be either Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, in the middle part of the 19th century was still a wild place and the two men in Flashman's cell were important figures in that wild region. The one chained to the ceiling was Yakub Beg, is a highly born, well regarded military commander in the Syr Daria area, he and the other cell mate get an appendix at the end of Flashman at the Charge all to themselves. The other man is Izzar Kutebar; a bandit leader and guerilla fighter, and although the two men have their differences, they are allies at present and close friends, as evidenced by their banter, which Flashman knows is a sign of respect and friendship amongst the Ghazis.

Once they know Flashman isn't a Russki as they call the Russians, they welcome him as an ally. Beg keeps talking about a rescue and someone he refers to as the Silk One, Flashman thinks he's raving, but surely enough when night falls the camp is attacked and Flashman and Kutebar are forced to fight for their lives in the dungeon. Flashman remarks that he's a veteran of dungeon fights, referencing things that take place in Flashman and Royal Flash.

The three men are ultimately liberated by forces led by someone who appears to Flashman to be a slightly built turbaned boy. The boy is called the Silk One and appears to be some sort of lover to Beg. Flashman knows that same sex relationships are no uncommon amongst men in the area and while he personally doesn't go in for that sort of thing he allows each to their own. The shock comes when the Silk One tries to thank Harry for his part in keeping Beg safe and he attempts to reject the advances thinking it is a boy, then realises once the body is pressed against him that this is very much a woman!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Lies of Locke Lamora - read along Part 3

We're into week 3 of the read along. This week the questions come courtesy of Bryce at My Awful Reviews. I may be a little early with this, you know Australia being in Saturday while everyone else is still having Friday, but here goes:

1. This section is where we finally get to sneak a peek at the magic in The Gentleman Bastards books. From what we read, what are your initial impressions of the magic Lynch is using? Is there any way that Locke and Company would be able to get around the Bondsmage's powers?

Lynch doesn't really use a lot of magic, which is cool, neither does George RR Martin, and prior to reading Lies Martin's ASoIaF was one of the best fantasies I'd ever read, but the Bondsmages are a cool idea. One of the things I loved was that the Falconer is so all powerful and untouchable, I know they'll have to find a way around his power, because hey there's a lot of book still to go, but I can't for the life of me see how, which really rachets the tension up to 11.

2. Not a question, but an area for rampant speculation: If you want to take a stab at who you think the Grey King might be, feel free to do it here.

I'm a rereader, not a first timer, so it's kind of hard for me to have a go at this, because I know who it is, and it's hard to forget details like that.

2.5 (since 2 wasn't really a question) Anyone see the Nazca thing coming? Anyone? Do you think there are more crazy turns like this in store for the book? Would you like to speculate about them here? (yes, yes you would)

Again, being a rereader this is hard, although I can say that I never saw the Nazca thing coming and it was one of those shocks in the book that hit me like a punch in the guts. I already hated the Grey King and the Falconer, this just made me hate them even more. I liked Nazca, dammit! She did not deserve to die that way! There are plenty more shocks coming, trust me.

3. When Locke says "Nice bird, arsehole," I lose it. EVERY TIME. And not just because I have the UK version of the book and the word arsehole is funnier than asshole. Have there been any other places in the books so far where you found yourself laughing out loud, or giggling like a crazy person on the subway?

Oh absolutely! I love Locke's sarcastic, snotty turn of phrase. There's a lot of dialogue which is snappy and funny. No matter how many times I read the Liar/Bastard shtick I can't help, but laugh, and then there's some of Locke and Co's more audacious schemes that make me laugh, like I said last week the thing with the corpse was hysterically funny and it makes me howl with laughter every time I read it.

4. By the end of this reading section, have your opinions changed about how clever the Bastards are? Do you still feel like they're "cleverer than all the rest?" Or have they been decidedly outplayed by the Grey King and his Bondsmage?

I still think they're pretty , bloody clever, but they got too cocky. They never thought anyone could see through them, they stopped taking precautions, they never figured on a Karthain Bondsmage and they were absolutely out played.

5. I imagine that you've probably read ahead, since this was a huge cliffhanger of an ending for the "present" storyline, but I'll ask this anyway: Where do you see the story going from here, now that the Grey King is thought to be dead?

Sometimes reading ahead or rereading in a thing like this makes it difficult. Because I know how it all turns out any speculation on my part would probably spoil the book for others and I'm not about to do that.

6. What do you think of the characters Scott Lynch has given us so far? Are they believable? Real? Fleshed out? If not, what are they lacking?

One of the things that has to grab me about a book is the characters. I have to care about them, so I have to be invested in them. A large part of the reason I gave up on Erikson's Malazan Books of the Fallen was that I just didn't care what happened to the characters, it wasn't that I didn't like or dislike them, it was just that I simply didn't care. I adored Locke and Jean, Calo, Galdo and Bug. Even characters in the past like Chains or the occasionally mentioned Sabetha. I hated the Bondsmage and the Grey King. I love peripheral characters like Dona Sofia and Conte. Even the city of Camorr itself which I have said before is like this bonus character in Lies, I could see those streets, I could smell the water, I could feel the heavy air. I'm in Camorr every time I read Lies.

7. Now that you've seen how clever Chains is about his "apprenticeships," why do you think he's doing all of this? Does he have an endgame in sight? Is there a goal he wants them to achieve, or is it something more emotional like revenge?

There is an element of revenge about what Chains does with his apprentices, especially Locke, but there's also a lot of 'this is what I do, so I'll teach you to do it, too' there. The Gentleman Bastards are a little like Chains' legacy to the world. Although he didn't know it at first, although I think he had thoughts after the Thiefmaker first told him of Locke's exploits, Locke became like a son to him.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 8

Once again Flashman is a Russian prisoner, only this second time around is not likely to as pleasant as his first stint.

For starters his jailer is the frightening and intense Ignatieff. The Russian mastermind isn’t entirely happy that East got away, especially as Flashman lets it be known that they were both aware of the plan to invade northern India via central Asia. On the other hand Flashman, not East, was the man he wanted. He then arranges a little demonstration for Flashman’s benefit.

A terrified soldier up on charges of insubordination is brought into the yard, the man is tied down to a low table and then Ignatieff produces a long whip, it’s quite thick and heavy at one end and thin and sharp at the other. This is the famed and feared Russian knout. It’s use, Ignatieff informs his prisoner, is illegal. However rules don’t apply to people like Ignatieff. There are two types of strokes with the knout, both of which Ignatieff has his flogger show Harry. The drawing stroke makes use of the whip’s tapered end and it cuts the skin, drawing blood, hence the name, there is debate about how many drawing strokes it takes to kill a fit and healthy man. The other stroke; the flat stroke, uses the weight of the knout to snap the spine, properly delivered it kills with one blow. After having killed a man to make a point, Ignatieff tells Flashman that if he doesn’t do as he is told then he will use him to settle the debate about how many drawing strokes it takes to kill a fit and healthy male.

For reasons of plot development Ignatieff turns into a Bond villain, giving Harry full details of his plan to invade northern India and congratulating himself on his own cleverness. Fraser does make a point of having Flashman observe how Ignatieff is too arrogant and confident by far and puts it down to his youth at the time (he was in his early 20’s). What makes Flashman valuable to the Russian nobleman is his reputation in central Asia, he’s done his research well and knows about Flashman’s Afghan exploits (Flashman) even down to his nick name of Bloody Lance. He’s not entirely sure of Flashman, though. On the one hand the reports from the front and his charge of the Russian battery fit with Flashman’s hero reputation, but what Ignatieff has seen of Harry’s behaviour first hand don’t fit with it and he’s highly dubious of the reputation Harry has a fire eating soldier. He wants to use the Englishman to help get the tribes of central Asia onside, because he’s held in high regard by many of them.

Although he’s still terrified of the knout and Ignatieff himself, Flashman’s spirits pick up a little when he hears where he’s going. Afghanistan and the surrounding territories may be hellish places, but to Harry Flashman they’re home country. He knows the languages, the customs and the people. If he can get away he’ll blend in with them and the Russians will never find him. Ignatieff doesn’t say anything, but he puts a tight guard on Harry during their journey, because he may also know exactly what the wily Englishman is thinking. Harry’s awfully good at running away.

Harry is surprised at the activity and size of the Russian camp in central Asia, but doesn’t have long to admire it all before he’s thrown into a cell with a couple of locals. He doesn’t recognise either man, but one of them must have upset the Russians because he’s been suspended from the ceiling of the cell by chains secured at his wrists and ankles and has to be supported by his cell mate so that he doesn’t dislocate his limbs.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows has been a much loved children’s classic almost since author Kenneth Grahame first released it in 1908. The idea that animals dress, live and act like people in animal form wasn’t new even back then, in that respect Grahame could be considered a contemporary of Beatrix Potter, although Potter seemed to write for a younger audience than Grahame. The Wind in the Willows began life as stories that the former secretary of the Bank of England told to his young son Alastair, in fact Mr Toad is in part based on the boy’s headstrong nature.

It’s not really a single narrative, but rather a series of stories or adventures had by the principal characters of Mole, Ratty (actually a water rat or vole), Toad and Badger. Otter also occasionally pops in for a say and the search for his missing son; Portly, by Mole and Ratty is actually the basis of one of the most fantastical chapters; The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where the mole and the water rat find the missing young otter in care of Pan.

The bulk of the story centres on Mr Toad. The wealthy, but irresponsible and vain amphibian becomes obsessed with motor cars, which back in 1908 were still in their infancy as a mode of transport, eventually steals a car, is caught and sentenced to 20 years in gaol. He escapes disguised as a washerwoman, leads the police on a merry dance, is eventually acquitted and has to take his mansion; Toad Hall, back from a band of weasels and stoats that have appropriated it.

The major characters all serve a purpose, the wide eyed and naïve Mole kicks the whole thing off by abandoning spring cleaning his hole and meeting Ratty on his beloved river. Ratty is a dependable good natured loyal friend to both the deserving Mole and the far less deserving Toad. Toad embodies many of society’s worst qualities, but is somehow appealing all the same. He seems to be the most popular, or possibly the most memorable character in the book, whether that’s because he really is or because the best known retelling of the story; Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad, centres mainly on the second half of the book covering Toad’s escapade, is debatable. Badger is another stout and loyal, if somewhat gruff, companion.

I’m sure the author meant it as a series of stories featuring anthropomorphic animals to entertain his son, but because of the time it was written and with Grahame’s eye for detail and characterisation, as well as the social circles he moved in, it’s also a gentle dig at the middle and upper class Edwardian society of the time, especially Toad, cast as one of the increasingly irrelevant aristocracy of the age.

It’s a gentle whimsical series of tales and well worth the time taken to read it, it’s one of those books that can be read as a child and appreciated for different reasons as an adult.

Kenneth Grahame was not alone in writing entertaining stories of the goings on of animal folk. There’s the aforementioned Beatrix Potter. Later on Richard Adams Watership Down came along and A.R Lloyd’s underrated Kine. Garry Kilworth’s House of Tribes, featuring mice is also well worth reading in this vein. William Horwood’s Duncton Moles series is along those lines and in fact Horwood also wrote 4 sequels to The Wind in the Willows (The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond and The Willows at Christmas).

Monday, March 19, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 7

In the opening of the 7th chapter of Flashman at the Charge Pencherjevsky’s house is besieged by peasants enraged at the callous murder of their priests. Throughout his travels through Russia and during his sojourn at Pencherjevsky's, Flashman had viewed the serfs as little better than beasts of burden. He had occasionally wondered if they had a breaking point, apparently they did and the senseless murder of the priest was it. It seemed that the local landlord could do anything he wished to them, but hurt or kill their priest and you crossed a line. This revolt must have seemed pretty major to Harry because he compared it to some of the other major uprisings he’d seen throughout his long career, including Kabul (Flashman) and Peking (a packet that never unfortunately surfaced). Pencherjevsky urges Flashman and East to take Valla and a sled and make for safety, he strongly hints that Valla is pregnant with Flashman’s child. Initially East doesn’t want to leave, but Flashman reminds him of his ‘duty’ to escape and he’s all for it, especially when he realises that they’ll be doing so with Valla.

The Russian sled is one of the more interesting things that Harry has made his escape on, and it would film brilliantly, being both exciting and funny at the same time. Harry and East are initially chased by wolves. Valla is largely unconscious for this. East drives and Harry occupies himself by throwing things at the wolves. Mostly rugs, but they don’t slow the starving beasts down unless he can score a direct hit, they also ignore the food, generally bread, that Harry hurls at them in the vain hope they’ll give up the chase. They do manage to outpace the wolves long enough to reach a small settlement, where they rest, refuel and take on fresh horses.

Harry manages to content himself with Valla, she seems to have quite taken to his lovemaking and is happy to let Flashman take his pleasure with her. East is too interested in driving to chance a look behind the sled’s cover and it appears that Harry and Valla are relatively quiet about their business. What the two Englishmen are making for is a narrow causeway called the Arrow of Arabat. It’s a great name, very evocative and it just screams 'boys own adventure' of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s actually a real geographical phenomenon and it will carry Harry and East to a British held area where they can report to their British command about Ignatieff’s plan for Central Asia and Northern India (the area we now know as Pakistan).

They look home free and in the Flashman books that’s always a dangerous thing. Harry’s lost count of how many times he can see the finishing post, only to miss sight of the dirty big pothole right under his feet. This time the pothole is in the form of a group of mounted Russian soldiers. Because the cavalry aren’t towing a sled they can move faster than the escaping soldiers and may be able to take them, the sled needs to be lightened. East drives like a madman and Flashman starts throwing everything out, including the canopy, which exposes them to the elements, but cuts down on drag, when the Russians still keep gaining on them Flashman does something that while it was a shock to me the first time I read it, I really should have expected. He hurls Valla out of the sled! Personal survival at all costs. East is horrified, partially because it’s such a callous act, which could have killed the girl and partially because he’s still got a crush on her. Flashman convinces him to keep on going and plays it so that it looks like he’s a stone hearted so and so who will do anything for Queen and Country when it counts.

Unfortunately the sled comes to grief on the ice and Flashman is pinned under it. East has two options here. He can leave Flashman and leg it, probably making it to the British outpost with his vital information, or he can stay and help Harry, but they’ll probably both be caught. He takes the first option, telling Harry that he can’t let his sacrifice and his actions in possibly killing Valla go to naught. When the boot’s on the other foot Harry isn’t quite so brave or forgiving, he calls East every name he can think of, and believes even 50 years later with Harry ‘Scud’ East long dead, that the action was taken largely out of spite for Valla, not due to his duty.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Lies of Locke Lamora - read along Part 2

This is the second part of the Lies of Locke Lamora read along. This week the questions have been provided by Dark Cargo. I think I may actually be on time this week!

1) Do you think Locke can pull off his scheme of playing a Midnighter who is working with Don Salvara to capture the Thorn of Camorr? I mean, he is now playing two roles in this game - and thank goodness for that costume room the Gentlemen Bastards have!

We’re talking about Locke Lamora here. THE Locke Lamora! His entire life that readers have seen so far is one big elaborate lie. He can pull off dual roles with his eyes shut.

2) Are you digging the detail the author has put into the alcoholic drinks in this story?

I’d never really thought about this before, but yes I love the sound of some of the Camorri cocktails and wonder if Scott Lynch lists bartending somewhere on his CV.

3) Who is this mysterious lady Gentlemen Bastard Sabetha and what does she mean to Locke?

You get the impression that Sabetha and Locke were once an item and would like to hear more about her. I found a comment about wanting her back a little less crazy, which was said by one of the Sanza’s at dinner one night during an interlude to be rather telling and highly amusing.

4) Are you as creeped out over the use of Wraithstone to create Gentled animals as I am?

Oh, yes the Gentling is really creepy, not just that, but the effect Wraithstone has on humans, too, turning them into mindless addicts.

5) I got a kick out of child Locke's first meeting with Capa Barsavi and his daughter Nazca, which was shortly followed up in the story by Barsavi granting adult Locke permission to court his daughter! Where do you think that will lead? Can you see these two together?

Nazca comes across as not dissimilar to Sabetha in personality, a good friend, but a dangerous enemy. I could never see her and Locke together, they’re friends, but that’s all, she was as horrified by her father’s idea as Locke was.

6) Capa Barsavi is freaked out over rumors of The Gray King and, in fact, us readers are privy to a gruesome torture scene. The Gray King is knocking garristas off left and right. What do you think that means? Barsavi is scared and paranoid.

The Gray King has an agenda, he’s killing garristas and the biggest garrista of the lot is Barsavi himself. The Gray King whoever he is, is announcing his presence and killing off Barsavi’s people to draw the big fish out.

7) In the Interlude: The Boy Who Cried for a Corpse, we learn that Father Chains owes an alchemist a favor, and that favor is a fresh corpse. He sets the boys to figuring out how to provide one, and they can't 'create' the corpse themselves. How did you like Locke's solution to this conundrum?

I loved that we got to see some of Locke’s boyhood escapades. If you were going to make a sitcom out of The Lies of Locke Lamora, this would be an excellent episode. I did wonder how Locke was going to get a corpse, I knew he could do it, he’d already proven that with some of the things he’d done even before the Thiefmaker sold him to Chains, but then when Chains put certain conditions in place Locke had to get creative. The funniest thing of the lot was not only did they get the corpse, thus fulfilling Chains’ brief they ended up making a profit out of it and Chains had all these people giving him extra offerings for what happened in the marketplace. I was in tears of laughter!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Timeless by Gail Carriger

In reviewing Timeless, the 5th and final book of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate I felt it best to hand the reins over to a friend this once. Ladies and gentleman I present to you Mavis Tedlington-Bumbecrack (Mrs) and her review of Timeless.

We ladies of the colonies are so indebted to Lady Alexia Maccon for keeping us up to date with what is happening in the dear motherland and goings on of the ton.

I admire Lady Maccon, as she has overcome being half Italian (on her father’s side) and lack of a soul to become the closest confidante of London’s best dressed vampire Lord Akeldama, and marry the most desirable werewolf in Her Majesty’s Empire Lord Conall Maccon.

In recent times Lady Maccon has given birth to a delightful child with the unfortunate name of Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama. Prudence is a highly unusual infant. Being the natural offspring of a werewolf and a soulless woman like Lady Maccon she has the enviable ability to leech supernatural talents by touching a vampire or werewolf, to date the most convenient way of removing her enhancements is by being touched by her mother, who shuts off the connection to the supernatural in the same way that she nullifies vampires or werewolves.

In her most recent journal of adventures Lady Maccon finds it necessary to travel to Egypt with her very good friend, the excellent actress and wearer of the most fashionable hats in the Empire; Ivy Tunstell. Meanwhile back in England Lord Akeldama; Lady Maccon’s friend and adoptive father of Prudence, holds the fort with his former drone and now werewolf of the Woolsey pack; Mr Rabiffano (I do so prefer his full name to the truncated Biffy that most people refer to him by), with help from Lord Maccon’s ever so polite beta Professor Randolph Lyall.

We readers are treated to a description of life aboard a cruise ship, and I know that if I ever get the opportunity to travel back to the motherland I ensure that I am accompanied by an acting troupe, they seem to liven the journey up considerably. Of course things were also complicated by Lady Maccon falling overboard at one point and having to be rescued by her terribly brave husband.

In Egypt Lady Maccon and her daughter were summoned to the Vampire Queen of the Alexandria Hive; Matakara. Unfortunately some dastard stole Mrs Tunstell’s daughter Primrose in the mistaken belief she was Prudence. Lord and Lady Maccon, their daughter, Mr and Mrs Tunstell and their entire acting troupe go in pursuit of the kidnapped infant. Lady Maccon’s faithful and highly competent butler; Floote, is exposed as something other than anyone ever thought and the delightful Mrs Tunstell undergoes a shocking transformation.

Sadly Lady Maccon has elected to retire from her life of adventuring and settle down with her husband, daughter and friendly vampires. She will be missed by those of us adrift in the colonies, but our lives have been enriched immeasurably by her efforts and her journals.

Lady Maccon’s chronicler; Miss Carriger assures her readers that next year she will be making available new adventures, but these are about a younger set and take place some years earlier. Your correspondent is eager to see this.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 6

Chapter 6 of Flashman at the Charge is a longish one, but it's also highly entertaining.

The last time most readers of Flashman's adventures saw Scud East he was telling Harry that he was sorry to see him expelled from Rugby. Flashman didn't believe him at the time, but with the way Harry East is, it was probably true.

East is, like Flashman, a political. According to the notes in the back the further details of East's military career could be found in the sequel to Tom Brown's Schooldays, Tom Brown at Oxford. Unlike Harry, East takes his duties rather seriously and thinks of escape, that is when he's not lusting after Pencherjevsky's voluptuous blonde daughter; Valla.

The count is described by East as being a loud-mouthed, brutal, tyrannical ogre. After meeting him Flashman agrees, but Pencherjevsky takes a liking to Flashman, seeing him mistakenly as a kindred spirit. Harry's looks and his reputation have once again assisted him. It's highly unlikely that George MacDonald Fraser based Pencherjevsky on a real person, but there was actually a Cossack commander by the name of Pencherjevsky and Fraser links him to that person by connecting him to the same regiment the real Pencherjevsky commanded. It's another example of the great attention to detail that Fraser often does display in the books. I did find a possible continuity error during one of Pencherjevsky's conversations with Flashman. The Count mentions Karl Marx in an unfavourable light and Flashman doesn't think he can mention that the man was an uninvited guest at his wedding (see Royal Flash), and it is true that someone who may have been Marx did show up when Flashman married Duchess Irma, but Flashman never realised who the protestor at the wedding was.

Flashman again comments on the way the serfs were treated. He uses an incident with Valla where she bet a serf's hair at cards and then after the girl had been shorn banished her from the house and begged fifty roubles from her father to get a new maid. Apparently the hair was worth thirty. Flashman also talks about the arbitrary judgements handed down by Pencherjevsky to hs serfs at his weekly meeting with them. They were regularly sentenced to floggings with cudgels or whips and sent to Siberia for the most trifling of matters and yet Pencherjevsky defends himself by saying that he is more lenient than most land holders because he doesn't use the knout or the foot press.

In one of Harry's more bizarre sexual encounters he is introduced to the Russian custom of the steam bath by Pencherjevsky's sister; Sara, whom everyone seems to refer to as Aunt Sara. She birches Harry in the steam, then has him do the same to her before indulging in a frenzied bout of love making. It is after this encounter that Pencherjevsky virtually pimps out Harry to Valla. Valla is married, but the Count doesn't think her husband is capable of getting her with child, and the idea of a grandson sired by Harry appeals to him. Scud East is also besotted with the girl.

A number of high ranking officials turn up to the property for some sort of meeting. Harry East insists that they should eavesdrop and see what they can hear as it may prove useful to the Empire. They hear far more than they should and most of it involves a plot hatched by Ignatieff (to Harry's horror he was present) to forment unrest amongst the natives of India and thus remove the British troops and replace them with Russian ones. East says that they have to escape and deliver this information to their superiors in the British army, he's even researched the route. Harry is of course against this, but has to at least make it look like he's doing the smart thing. There was also the suggestion that Tsar Nicholas of Russia was at the meeting, and if Fraser's reading of Flashman's dates are right then the Tsar didn't live long after the meeting.

Flashman may have been able to sit the war out in relative comfort had it not been for a chance happening. The village's priest and a character called Blank (who Fraser's notes suggest may have been one of Lenin's ancestors) come to Pencherjevsky to beg him to pay the soul tax for one of his serfs, an old lady who cannot afford it. Pencherjevsky refuses and sends his cossacks to teach Blank a lesson. They can't find Blank, but instead flog the priest who dies. The serfs will take a lot, but don't ever interfere with their religion. The chapter ends with the house under attack as the enraged peasants revolt at the murder of their priest.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 5

After his harrowing charge into the Russian battery in chapter 4 of Flashman at the Charge, chapter 5 finds the 'pride of the Empire' as a Russian prisoner of war.

Harry actually states that being a prisoner of war in those days wasn't really all that bad. He's done time in all sort of prisons in a number of situations so he speaks from experience. A few things benefited him in the Crimea though. One was he was being held by another European power and they tended to view things very similarly back then, their Tsar later ended up being related to Queen Victoria, war was to some extent thing still considered a 'gentleman's game' and as such prisoners, especially officers, should be treated well. Harry was a recognised hero amongst the other British prisoners, particularly the enlisted men, and in a rare moment of self examination he does actually feel something for these men and the way they look up to him, when he knows they are far braver than he has ever been. The Russians also respect Flashman's bravery for riding into the guns, they don't realise that he was so unmanned by fear that he didn't really know which direction he was going.

Flashman doesn't stay at the front all that long, he is transported inland to be held at the estate of a Count Pencherjevsky; a Cossack. Via his anti-hero George MacDonald Fraser gives readers a good look at how he felt about the Russia of the 1850's. It's a huge country, Harry even compares it to the endless plains of the American West, and the US comes off second best in the land stakes. It's unrelentingly bleak and brutal. Most of this is not due to the landscape, but the Russian institution of serfdom. The serf system still existed in Russia until the later part of the 19th century, it was a form of legalised slavery, and in Harry's opinion the slaves on the plantations in the deep south of America had it better than the supposedly 'free' serfs toiling under Russia's endless skies.

It is on the way to Pencherjevsky's estate that Flashman runs into an extraordinary character. His name is Count Nicholas Pavlovitch Ignatieff, and he would become one of Harry Flashman's greatest adversaries. At the time Flashman sees him as another privileged and brutal Russian officer. He is courteous to Flashman, but only because he sees him as somewhat of a social equal. Both army officers, both from the landed gentry and both from money. Ignatieff is in many ways like John Charity Spring, in that he is a psychotic villain, but he differs from the insane slaving captain in most other respects. Firstly Ignatieff is real, the reality of the man suggests that George MacDonald Fraser took significant liberties with the character to mould him into Harry's adversary. Both John Charity Spring and Ignatieff are capable of great cruelty without giving it a second thought, but where Spring flies into an insane rage, Ignatieff is totally cool and completely in control, he knows what he is doing and it's highly possible that he enjoys it. Harry comes away from the encounter positively terrified of the man.

There's another shock waiting for Harry when he arrives at Pencherjevsky's. He has just eyed off the Count's attractive daughter, and is shown to his quarters which he will share with another British officer. Harry enters the room and comes face to face with Scud East of Rugby.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Lies of Locke Lamora - read along Part 1

Before I get into this I need to explain a couple of things. I've never done a read along before, so I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. I'm not actually sure that I'm even really officially involved in this, I seem to be ignored by most other bloggers, so I could be talking to myself, but no matter. The questions are provided by Little Red Reviewer and she is hosting this first part of the read along. It covers from the beginning to the interlude Locke Stays for Dinner.

Here are the questions and my responses:

1. If this is your first time reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, what do you think of it so far? If this is a re-read for you, how does the book stand up to rereading?

It's a reread for me. I actually think this may be the seventh time I've read it. I can remember reading the opening on the way back to work on the tram, I bought the book on my lunch break and started reading it straight away. I was enraptured right from the beginning and until the last page. That first time I couldn't wait for work to finish so I could keep reading. It's been the same every time since, and even in the early stages I find things that are new to me or alter on a reread.

2. At last count, I found three time lines: Locke as as a 20-something adult, Locke meeting Father Chains for the first time, and Locke as a younger child in Shades Hill. How are you doing with the Flashback within a flashback style of introducing characters and the world?

I love the flashback idea. It doesn't alway work, but with The Lies of Locke Lamora it does. The opening is a flashback of sorts and then you cut to Locke and the rest of the Gentleman Bastards pulling off their latest game, the interludes are important as they link to current situations in the older Lock's life and in fact that of some of the other Gentleman Bastards as well.

3. Speaking of the world, what do you think of Camorr and Lynch’s world building?

I've said it before, so I'll repeat it here. Camorr is like this extra character in the book, the city and it's history are that well developed that it takes on a life and personality of it's own. I've seen some say that Scott Lynch doesn't build worlds that well, because he only deals with one city in The Lies of Locke Lamora. That's true, but it's such a wonderfully realised city, it feels real, it's got a history, so for me Scott Lynch gets a 10 out of 10 for world building with The Lies of Locke Lamora.

4. Father Chains and the death offering. . . quite the code of honor for thieves, isn’t it? What kind of person do you think Chains is going to mold Locke into?

I get the impression that Father Chains and Locke aren't that dissimilar. Locke is the one in a million kid Chains has spent most of his career looking for. Locke is the archetypal Gentleman Bastard and that's what Chains is going to turn Locke into.

5. It’s been a while since I read this, and I’d forgotten how much of the beginning of the book is pure set up, for the characters, the plot, and the world. Generally speaking, do you prefer set up and world building done this way, or do you prefer to be thrown into the deep end with what’s happening?

It kind of depends on the book really. I can't imagine The Lies of Locke Lamora be anything other than what it is. When you think about it, it kind of does both. The opening introduces readers to Locke, Chains, Camorr and the concept, but then readers get dropped right into the middle of the Don Salvara game in chapter one, entitled The Don Salvara Game, and have to connect that to the opening and have all these new ideas and characters thrown at them.

6. If you’ve already started attempting to pick the pockets of your family members (or even thought about it!) raise your hand.

I have to say no. I love stories about capers and thieves, but as I have absolutely no manual dexterity I could never entertain the thought of doing it to someone else.

Hopefully next week I'll have a less busy weekend and be able to get to this closer to the correct day.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 4

I have a confession to make. I don't really like chapter 4 of Flashman at the Charge. It's very battle and tactic heavy. This is how Flashman got into the Charge of the Light Brigade. While George MacDonald Fraser's descriptions of hand to hand fighting describe the chaos and terror that this type of combat is I find my attention lagging and my eyes glazing over when he goes into troop positions and tactics. It's not just Fraser, it's any historical writer that does it, it just doesn't float my boat.

Harry lays the blame for the disaster that was this engagement squarely at the feet of Raglan, although Cardigan was the guy hauled over the coals back in England afterwards. Lew Nolan seems to have a lot to do with it, too. Nolan was, like Flashman, a galloper, meant to carry messages from the commanders on the hills to those on the front line. Nolan was also a fire eater and had complained bitterly about the lack of action from the generals. It's mentioned in the notes that it is still a matter of debate as to whether the message Raglan sent to the front line called for a defensive and an offensive action. Harry says that he caused the charge because he was arguing with Nolan and the raging case of flatulence he had obscured a lot of talk. Harry's bowel movements were actually rather amusing. There's also an excellent description of the very cool George Paget, who rode into battle casually with a cheroot in his mouth and at one stage when hit by a shell splinter told his orderly to collect it as souvenir.

The long and the short of it is that a reluctant Harry Flashman was caught up in the cavalry charge, lost his bearings and rode straight into the Russian lines, instead of away from them. The chapter ends with a thrown Flashman, cowering under lance points howling: "Kamerad! Ami! Sarte! Amigo! Oh God, what's the Russian for 'friend'?" how very typically Flashman. It reminded me of how in the cartoon Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (the gang, including Fonzie's anthropomorphic kid friendly dog; Mr Cool, wound up in a faulty time machine piloted by a future girl called Cupcake, travelling through time and space trying to get back to Milwaukee in their time) viewers found out that the group's cowardly comic Ralph Malph knew how to shout for help in every language on the face of the earth.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 3

Chapter 3 of Flashman at the Charge sees Harry and Willy arrive in the Crimea itself. Most of the chapter concerns itself with the old soldier's observations on the campaign itself, the conduct and general incompetence of the commanders and while most of this is common knowledge it still stuns me that it was true of many of the British commanders of the day, yet they were still successful so often.

There's a mention of a correspondent by the name of Billy Russell. Flashman confesses to liking the man, he's not the only journalist mentioned in the papers and they generally come off fairly favourably. Maybe George MacDonald Fraser's bias, being an old journalist himself, was showing here.

Willy is eager to get into the action and it's all Harry can do to hold him back. The young prince sees war as a great adventure and keeps comparing what they're doing to the knights of old. Harry of course knows better, having experienced at least two fairly bloody campaigns already (Flashman and Flashman and the Mountain of Light) and his natural cowardice kicks in. Flashman doesn't have to go anywhere near the action, his reputation is enough to keep him away from the front lines.

Sure enough Willy does something rash and while Raglan screams at Harry to get after him, Harry pretends not to hear and when he does finally have to go it's too late. Poor Willy is killed. Flashman's reaction, which is mostly fear that his reputation and career will be shot (after all he was partially responsible for the death of Queen Victoria's nephew), is mistaken for grief at what happened to his young companion.

A moment of high hilarity is sobered by a very poignant reflection. Raglan carpets Flashman, blaming him for the tragedy, which is true enough, then hands him Willy's effects, one of which is a locket containing a picture of a girl Raglan describes as: 'the face of a boy's sweetheart, chaste, trusting and innocent.' Harry nearly laughs, because the last time he had seen the poor sweet creature she had been wearing a pair of black satin boots and nothing else. Yes, Willy had worn the image of St John's Woods whore into battle! If Flashman had his way Willy would be back in London pleasuring himself with the girl, but he then wonders if Raglan and any of the boy's pious relatives would have called him back to life on those terms. The chapter ends with three heartbreaking words: Poor little Willy.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 2

The second chapter of Flashman at the Charge may very well be one of my favourite chapters in the entire series thus far. It doesn't really have any historical impact or even a lot on the story, although one element of it does become important later on. One part is very funny and the other gives Harry himself some significant character development and highlights something that I like most about the series itself.

Once Flashman has been attached to young Willy they go about preparing for their campaign in the Crimea and Harry starts squiring his charge around London and introducing him to all the well connected society matrons, his own lovely wife included. He notes that he and Willy have something in common, they're both charmers when they need to be. He's about to find out that's not all they have in common.

One evening Willy asks Harry if the ladies they can see coming out for a night's work are prostitutes. Harry confirms this and tells young Willy that he doesn't want anything to do with them. The surprising reply comes from William of Celle that indeed he does, he has always wanted a 'whore', contact with young women has been something he's always been denied, and he has a very specific woman in mind, as he tells Flashman: "I want one, with long golden hair, and big, big round - " readers never got to discover what Willy wanted big and round on his dreamgirl as Harry cut him off, but he did finish: "And she will wear black satin boots buttoning up to her thighs."

Now if there is one thing Harry Flashman knows, it is how to procure a woman of the night for somebody. He takes his charge to a brothel where he has an understanding with the madam and produces a girl that matches Willy's specifications. After his first encounter with the girl Willy says to her: "You are a beautiful whore, I am quite delighted with you, and shall visit you frequently." According to Harry he did too.

During the preparation for the war Harry and Willy were kept busy at work and were regularly working well past midnight. One of these nights Harry doesn't want to go home to an empty house (Elspeth is staying the night at a friend's house who is throwing an 'off to war' ball), so gets himself rather drunk and then decides to surprise Elspeth by turning up at the ball. Drunk as he is he thinks it would be rather romantic to hide in the closet in Elspeth's room and jump out. He falls asleep in there and is woken by the sound of a voice, he peers out and there is his darling wife getting ready for bed and wearing only her bloomers. Harry jumps out and sees another figure in the room! Lord Cardigan, shirt held up, breeches around his knees. Elspeth is shocked by the appearance of both men and even Harry has to admit that Cardigan maintains his dignity, dropping his shirt, pulling up his pants, bidding them a good night and leaving.

For the past 14 years, ever since he returned from Afghanistan Harry has been convinced that Elspeth cheats on him. It doesn't much bother him, he cheats on her all the time, and she does hold the purse strings, but with Cardigan is almost more than he can bear. Elspeth tearily professes her innocence. Then she wonders what Harry was doing in the closet, did he have a woman in there? Harry says no, but Elspeth even makes him prove it. As they settle down to sleep Flashman reflects: I don't suppose I've cried myself to sleep since I was an infant, but it was touch and go then.
Only Elspeth could provoke that sort of emotional reaction from Harry Flashman.

Legend by David Gemmell

I did read Legend by David Gemmell some years ago. I hardly remembered it, what I did remember that I wasn't particularly impressed. I can't have read it properly, because this time I came away very impressed and having some understanding of why David Gemmell is regarded so highly in the field.

Legend isn't anything especially new, in fact it's a very well used trope in adventure fiction, war fiction and fantasy. The legendary old warrior comes out of retirement one last time to fight a final battle to the death.

The Drenai kingdom is under threat from the all conquering Nadir tribe under their feared leader Ulric. The Drenai plan to make their final defence at Dros Delnoch, a fortress city that has never fallen. This time it may be different. Ulric has a huge army that has never lost. Dros Delnoch is undermanned and poorly led. It's time for Druss the Legend to come out of retirement and defend his people once more, inspire them with his very presence.

Although Druss is the Legend of the title, the book is not just about him or even the defence of the Drenai. It's about all the people connected with it. The handsome carefree Rek, who becomes a baresark fighter when his blood is up. Virae, the feisty warrior woman who falls in love with Rek. Gan Orrin, the formerly unfit commander of Dros Delnoch. There are even little vignettes like that of Carin the miller, who lost his life defending his home and believed in Druss, not knowing that his wife had left in fear of her life with their infant son.

It's so well written and characterised that it is hard to believe Legend was in fact David Gemmell's first novel. Admittedly he had been working as a journalist for many years and worked a lot on the work that became Legend before it was published in 1984, but it is handled so very well.

Throughout most of the book I had the nagging thought that the Nadir were based on Genghis Khan's Mongols. The clinching proof for me was the mention of a character called Tsubodai, one of Ulric's better regarded men. Conn Iggulden's historical fiction series Conqueror, about the rise of Genghis Khan and his sons and grandsons, also featured a Tsubodai, he was one of Genghis' most successful and better known generals.

The closest historical analogue I can find to the seemingly doomed defence of Dros Delnoch is the Alamo legend of the American West, which was something that interested Gemmell, although the author himself likened it to a personal situation at the time when he began work on it. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and while Druss was determined that the Nadir wouldn't defeat him, David Gemmell was equally determined to battle the disease to his very last breath. Fortunately the diagnosis was later proven to be incorrect.

One criticism I do have of Legend is that it maybe went 2 or 3 chapters longer than it really needed to. Personally I would have liked it to end with the death of Druss, but it went on a little longer to tell readers what happened to Rek, Virae, Bowman and the Drenai and Nadir empires following this historic battle.

David Gemmell continued on in the epic tradition of writers like Robert E. Howard and was a contemporary of Glen Cook, who wrote similar fantasy work of a military bent with his Black Company series. In recent times Joe Abercrombie has written in this vein, his 2011 work; Heroes, in particular recalls Legend and I can imagine Abercrombie's berserker hero Logen The Bloody Nine Ninefingers enjoying Druss' company, in fact most of Joe Abercrombie's Northmen would fit in very well with Druss and wouldn't have been out of place in the defence of Dros Delnoch.