Archive for June, 2014

Ahhh, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker winning The Luminaries. It’s certainly not a quick read!

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It took such a time to read it – and admittedly my reading coincided with a stroppy baby and a hectic few weeks at work – that the beautiful cover started to wear off! The M of LUMINARIES on the front cover is being rubbed away by my finger as I hold it like this

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It was at such risk of becoming dilapidated that I asked the librarian at work to cover it for me!

My 11 month old daughter also loved this book. Not so much the words (she prefers Ten Little Fingers for that!) but the pages being flicked through. In fact, she liked it so much that she’d make a beeline for it as soon as she saw it. Pages became torn as a result.

But I adored this book. I loved Harvest, The Testament Of Maryand A Tale For The Tome Being and I wondered whether this would hold its own and live up to the hype as Man Booker winner. And it did. In spades.

I am a simple fellow and I am sure much of this book swept past me. I am, after all, looking for very few things in a book: a cracking plot; compelling characters; and beautiful language. In addition to all that, there is an effort to create astronomical and astrological connections between the characters.

20140628-225718-82638357.jpg I am sure that much of this passed me by!

The story centres around one evening in January 14th 1866 when Crosbie Wells, a reclusive hermit, dies near to the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika; Lauderback, a politician, arrives in Hokitika and discovers both Wells’ body in his cottage and the unconscious body of Anna Wetherell, a whore, insensate in the streets through an opium overdose; and a famously rich man, Emery Staines, disappears from the same town.

Around this cluster of events, twelve men recognise their own and each other’s involvement. Each man circles this single evening whilst circling the other men as well. Orbiting is clearly an apt word to describe the way each character (and they are all men) become closer to one part of the events of 14th January and more distant from others. That much, I could recognise and – as I said – I’m sure the way each man influences the others around him probably bears some astrological significance. But one I’m ill equipped to identify.

In terms of style, this book piles narrative upon narrative, again orbiting that one night and never quite revealing the truth until the final pages. There is a very much self-aware third person narrator here who, in the opening chapters, is reminiscent of the nineteenth century self conscious narrators. This narrator initially takes the side of Walter Moody, a newcomer to Hokitika who stumbles into a conference held by the twelve men associated with the 14th January events. It is to him that each character tells their tale of involvement. And each of those tales is knitted together for us by the narrator. Circles Within Circles is an incredibly apt name for this part of the book. Courtrooms reinvent one narrative into a quite different story. Flashbacks in the final chapters cause you to re-evaluate and re-think almost all that’s gone before.

The two main characters – Emery Staines, Anna Wetherell are marginalised throughout most of this book! Staines disappeared before the book began; and Anna is sequestered away for large parts of it. They are, however, brought centre stage in the final sections, and it is their voices which resound deepest. I am assuming that this pair of (star-crossed?) lovers are the luminaries, the light givers, of the title, the solar and lunar lights in the sky. I do await to be corrected, however.

It is impossible to pigeonhole this book into a genre: there are elements of Romance between Staines and Anna, elements of Crime around the investigation into Wells’ death, gold thefts, fraud and embezzlement; elements of the Gothic aboard an ill-fated sea journey; elements of the mystical in the relationship between Anna and Staines as bullets that should have struck one inexplicably wound the other, addictions suffered by one and the other’s ability to read and write and sign a signature likewise transferred. It is, however, simply a beautiful book! The vivid quality of Hokitika brought to life with these men orbiting the town and passing by each other; the structural complexity and aesthetic beauty of the book; and the enchanting beauty of a language which feels simultaneously natural and authentically reproducing the prose of another time and place.

After six weeks and 850 pages, I have finished the book with a strong sense of loss and a surprisingly strong urge to re-read it so that the opening chapters can be read in light if what I now know.

That urge to re-read is jolly unusual and a clear mark of just how compelling this book is.

A deserving Man Booker winner to stand alongside Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.

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This book had been on my to-read list since it was listed for The Booker Prize. The copy I had was electronic and just stopped about 20 pages in… And I never got round to replacing it.

Until it cropped up whilst I was browsing on Audible.

This was a perfect book for an audio file: not only is it a first person narrative which is always going to work best on audio, the voice of the narrator is the key to this book. Initially, the infantile voice of the five year old narrator was off putting but that was quickly overcome by the purity and innocence of his narrative voice. That voice was created through the hyper extension of grammatical rules and the omission of articles in sentences (which had the effect of personifying almost every element of his environment, presumably filling the social void caused by his isolation). There were one or two moments when I did question the authenticity of the voice: he discusses minus numbers within the opening chapters which jarred a little. Do five year olds have a concept of negative numbers? Really?

For those who’ve not come across this wonderful novel, the narrator Jack is five years old and it’s his birthday which opens the book. Throughout those five years, he believed the world to be comprised of the 11 foot square cell in which he and his mother had been incarcerated by an abductor. In fact, Jack’s mother had been abducted seven years previously and Jack was the product of the sexual abuse she suffered through that time. The appalling abuse suffered is mediated for us through Jack’s eyes: Donoghue strikes a very sensitive balance between her reader’s need to understand and her narrator’s innocent lack of understanding. We know what the noises Jack hears mean when Jack has no idea.

In the opening chapters, I was not sure in what direction she was taking us. Was this going to be a bleak tale of the destruction of innocence and hope (not unlike the 2014 Carnegie Medal winning The Bunker Diaries)? When Jack and his mother managed to escape perhaps a third of the way through the book I was genuinely elated at their freedom but continued to dread what might be in store for them in the last five hours of recording. I did genuinely pause my listening for a couple of days!

The story, I suppose, progressed in a fairly predictable manner in that the difficulties faced post-escape were just as traumatic as the horrors of the capture. The media. Lawyers. Police. These institutions all play their role in constructing a narrative around the abduction for their own ends. I loved the moments in the book where Jack was watching snippets of the media coverage of his own escape: stories within stories within stories, none of which were narrated with any degree of reliability.

It really is a remarkable book, purely through the voice of Jack. There’s a strength and beauty to the power of humanity to persevere despite the horrors we experience. It is, unlike The Bunker Diaries, a very optimistic and hopeful read.

Fantasy is a difficult genre to keep fresh. Tolkien looms as an edifice; George R. R. Martin, similarly. Sanderson is a fresh voice within that genre: like Martin, he eschews the vague mystical nature of Tolkien’s magic and fantasy races; unlike Martin, the magic is a central facet of his world-building and he eschews the more human and secular politics of the great houses.

My problem with Sanderson is that his magic system actually takes centre stage and those small things like plot, character, dialogue and pacing come across as secondary.

Now, I have a memory – actually, more than that – with a quick google search, the article I vaguely remembered is linked here – that Sanderson has strong view on magic systems. He consciously crafts them as systems with rules and limits so that he can’t deploy them as dei ex machina to resurrect or rescue characters or to resolve plotholes. Well, that’s fair enough; I respect that.

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So let’s look at Sanderson’s system in the Stormlight Archive thus far. The physical and emotional forces of this world are personified and given brief physical form called spren. Fire, wind and rain; fear, glory and creativity. These are mainly mindless manifestations but some spren it appears are able to bond with humans who exemplify particular ideals. So, Sylphrena, an honourspren, bonds with Kaladin who is honourable; and Pattern, a liespren (also known as a cryptic), bonds with Shallan who has deceived herself about her mother’s death. The bonding creates a symbiotic relationship: the spren gain sentience in the physical world; the humans gain the superhuman powers of the ancient and mythical Knights Radiant. Absorbing stormlight stored in spheres (or directly from the storms which ravage the world), Kaladin can manipulate gravity and bind objects together whilst Shallan can create illusions. It seems that all these bound characters are stronger, can move faster, and heal almost instantaneously.

Now, I understand that. It’s a comprehensible system with scope to expand: there were ten original orders of Knight Radiant and we’ve only really seen two although Sanderson’s Interludes often show us other bound characters briefly to hint at their powers.

What stopped the book succeeding, for me, was that there wasn’t much else apart from exploring this magic system going on here!

Let’s look at plot and character. Nothing much has really happened since the end of The Way Of Kings. Shallan has made her way to the Shattered Plains and met Kaladin. A number of duels were fought. Meetings were held. Rushed into the last five or six of the eighty-or-so chapters, Dalinar goes to war, discovers a lost city and chats to the spren of the storm. There’s an attempt to tempt Kaladin to become embroiled in a plot to kill the King whose safety (as a bodyguard) is his duty. Personally, I found that temptation utterly unconvincing: there was so much put in to try to give credibility to that temptation – the King is claimed to be responsible for some innocent deaths, imprisons Kaladin unfairly, then is revealed to have (indirectly) put in place a train of events that had led to the disgrace of Kaladin’s father, his brother’s death and his own enslavement. The piling up of these reasons smacked of desperation on Sanderson’s part, almost as if he or his editor found his decision to facilitate the King’s assassination just as unconvincing as I did.

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So, Kaladin’s moral dilemma was not convincing. Let’s turn to look at Shallan, the other main point-of-view character. Just as flashbacks in The Way Of Kings revealed Kaladin’s backstory, in Words of Radiance, the flashbacks reveal Shallan’s backstory. There’s some interest in that: the young daughter of a bullying abusive father. It is not incomprehensible that such a victim could adopt a light hearted persona to protect herself. The fluidity of her identity – being a Knight Radiant, she is able to create illusory disguises and identities – is actually intriguing: one of her disguises is dubbed Veil and Shallan wishes Veil were with her at one point; and towards the end her dual-identity is discovered and one character tells her that Veil is her true character and Shallan the disguise. I’m hoping Sanderson develops that point.

So, despite some interest, I do find Sanderson’s characters very two dimensional and his capacity to add depth and conflict unconvincing.

What about the language though? Alas, for me, this is a massive problem: his language is cliché-ridden and repetitive and his dialogue awkward and unconvincing. There are only so many times that you can describe the tempest within when characters breathe in stormlight. Characters can only be described as broken so many times. Descriptions of dialogue overused the word said far more than I’d have allowed a student I teach. In fairness, I listened to rather than read this book – narrated by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading – and I found Kramer’s delivery so ponderous I actually listened to it on 1.5 x normal speed! It is not impossible that his delivery may have emphasised things which the eye would have skimmed over. But Sanderson’s decision to use the storms as the central motif and linguistic theme does make his language repetitive.

I started this by talking about originality and giving Sanderson credit for originality within the genre. I am worried about how original he is between his own worlds. There are parallels between this and his earlier Mistborn trilogy: a similarly regulated magic system; a similar shift from a human story in the first book to a more cosmic scope by the final book; a similarly shattered world. The Mistborn world was revealed to have been earth-like once but reduced to an ashen world aeons before the final book reclaimed its verdancy. The Stormlight world is a stoney one inhabited by mainly crustaceans instead of mammals. There have been references once or twice to mythical creatures in children’s stories that resemble lions and questions raised about the use of the word hound to describe the reptilian axehounds kept as pets or hunting beasts.

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Are these hints of a lost world which Kaladin and Shallan will eventually reclaim as Vin did for the Mistborn world?

Will I read the final book? Yes. Yes I’m sure I will when it is published, for the sense of satisfaction that completing a cycle gives. I am not, however, convinced that I actually like or care about Shallan or Kaladin as much as I’d like to.

One last observation: one criticism often levelled at fantasy (in addition to two-dimensional characters and weak dialogue) is the doctrine of the improbable resurrection. Tolkien’s resurrection of Gandalf the Grey as Gandalf the White is sometimes cited as an example. X-Men and Marvel heroes rarely stay dead. In this book, Sanderson gives us not one but two improbable resurrections.

For someone who dislikes dei ex machina, to use a piece of unexplained technology to resurrect a character is just as much a ‘cheat’ as Tolkien’s magic!