Archive for March, 2015

This is the first of my reviews of this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness’ More Than This I read back in August – see here for my review – six months before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest, it will take some beating!

Anyway, this is my first knowing CILIP Carnegie read. 

And I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t think it’s a winner but a great read. I mean, fairytales, wolves, witches, werepeople, cross dressing. And a slightly underused hen. What’s not to like? 

   Fairytales and mythology have continued to inspire writers and are enjoying a revival with Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Helene Wecker, Ali Smith, Ali Shaw, Erin Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Disney – who would watch Frozen when you could read The Girl With Glass Feet? So, in this environment, expectations are high for Tinder. Heady company, Ms Gardner!

And the opening lines do not disappoint. 

Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking. He wore upon his skull a withered crown of white bone twisted with green hawthorn. His skeleton was shrouded with a tattered cloak of gold and, in his wake, stood the ghosts of my comrades newly plucked, half-lived, from life. Many I knew by name. 

  Based on the first fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson’s wrote, The Tinderbox, Tinder‘s narrator is Otto Hundebiss, a common soldier drafted into the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Following the slaughter of his compatriots, Otto drifts into a fairytale world of hidden castles, unruly princesses and fearsome werewolves. Following the structure of the original take, Otto has to face three trials in order to retrieve a mysterious tinderbox, keeping the riches he finds there. Instead of returning it to its owner, he keeps the tinderbox, causing her to be killed. In a nearby town, he discovers that the tinderbox grants him the power to summon monstrous werewolves. 

The language of the novel maintains the sparseness and occasional lyricism of the classic fairytale. There’s not the depth of character or psychology you might expect: Otto never becomes more than a cipher for the traumatised child soldier, the common man struggling against social inequalities, or sexual maturing. He doesn’t work as a character, even though Gardner does toss us flashbacks to the horrors that Otto has experienced. But that’s all okay because this is, at the end of the day, a fairy tale. 

The illustrations in the book by David Roberts are also worth a mention: they are gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. Stylised and unreal but gorgeous. 

   

 The novel certainly holds the imagination with the quality of an hallucination or a dream and a similar logic. Gardner has said that the novel was inspired by the experiences of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and of child soldiers in Rwanda as well as the Thirty Years War. For me, these real world parallels were mere echoes – although parents may want to exercise caution as the fate of Otto’s sister becomes clear as well as the fate of the daughter of a neighbouring farm. It is perhaps here that the more modern conflicts and our outrage at the use of rape as a weapon of war become most patent. 

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 I’ve been considering reading this for a while.  I do like Sanderson’s world building, especially in the Mistborn series; I also have a penchant for superheroes, dating back to a misspent youth. Sanderson’s take on superheroes was appealing and tempting, especially as the sequel to Steelheart, entitled Firefight, came out in January this year. 

And yet… For some reason I’ve hesitated, not quite prepared to part with cold hard cash for it. Thank goodness for libraries! Got the book out, paid nothing. And, in all honesty, I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

So, the basic premise is that something called Calamity appeared in the sky and people were gifted the powers we are so familiar with from superhero movies: Steelheart himself has very obvious echoes of Superman with invulnerability, flight, strength and energy bolts, albeit from his hands, flapping cape. He also has the ability to turn matter to steal. We also come across characters who can phase through walls and command shadows, create illusions and turn invisible, generate electricity, and demonstrate precognition. We also hear of people with powers to control earth or fire, to heal or to reduce people to ash with a thought or a pointed finger. These gifted people become known as Epics and quickly become warped, homicidal and power-hungry. 

A small group of rebels known as The Reckoners and led by the enigmatic Prof try to fight back by eliminating individual Epics. The novel commences as David infiltrates the Reckoners and shares his plan to defeat Steelheart. 

This is very much a Young Adult read: it rattles along with the pace of a computer game from set piece battle to set piece battle. The pace, however, led to somewhat two dimensional characters for me, again reminiscent of video game stock characters: a tank sporting an oversized gun, a sharpshooter, a hacker, a planner. There was never any time to feel as if I knew them, or even that there was anything to know. 

Sanderson’s world here was also not an original world such as he created in the Mistborn or Way of Kings. It is Chicago, transformed to steel by Steelheart and cloaked in eternal night. Sanderson does like to identify his worlds with individual features: the ash and fog of Mistborn; the rock and winds of The Way Of Kings; and now this steel cityscape. 

In many ways, Steelheart feels very similar to Mistborn: a city dominated by an apparently invincible tyrant; a plucky band of rebels; mysterious powers. What it lacks though was the charisma of Kelsier or the depth and humanity of Vin. The Prof and David simply didn’t have the same power. 

There are some fabulous and thoughtful Young Adult books out there – nodding to Phillip Pullman and Patrick Ness, Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me – and some cracking fun one – Derek Landy and Skulduggery Pleasant. This book falls somewhere in the middle. It is a decent read but it takes itself too seriously to be joyously fun and doesn’t have the depth to really explore the characters. 

And it really annoyed me that Sanderson – or David anyway – cannot differentiate between a simile and a metaphor. It is David’s character trait that his similes are lame: 

“Wow,” I said. “It’s like … A banana farm for guns.”
“A banana farm, Megan said flatly. 
“Sure. You know, how bananas grow from their trees and hang down and stuff?”
“Knees, you suck at metaphors.”
I blushed. An art gallery, I thought. I should have said “like an art gallery for guns.”

These are not metaphors. Similes!