It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.
This year, the list is:
I tend to have three books on the go simultaneously most of the time: an audiobook for the drive to and from work; a thoughtful, dare I say literary, book for when I’m at home; and a just-entertain-me book for when I don’t actually want to think too much.
We all need a just-entertain-me book to hand.
And Sanderson does that for me and does it well.
And that’s great. I’m under no illusion: the Mistborn books are not great literature. But that’s fine. It’s a detailed and fun magic system in a pretty original and fun universe and, on those times when you need to get your geek on, there’s apparently a whole interlocking Cosmere and multiple forms of Investiture to explore.
Anyway, in brief, the novel picks up the tale of Waxillium Ladrian – lawman and errant nobleman – and Wayne – master of disguise, thief and sidekick – about six months after the end of the slightly disappointing Shadows of Self.
This time, our heroes are sent beyond the city of Elendel – which had become a slightly confining locale – into the wider world which was a distinctly good move. In fact into a much wider world: entire continents in fact. Which makes sense: the end of the original Mistborn trilogy remodelled the entire planet after all.
We also glimpse a reinterpretation of the Lord Ruler whose powerful magical repositories the book is named after. He becomes – in the mythology of a different race – the saviour of men whose lives are threatened by the remodelling of the planet which was so bountiful to the city of Elendel.
The usual stuff is here: some slightly over blown set piece battles, nefarious uncles and henchmen, turncoats, traitors and spies. There are a few scenes which don’t work terribly well, usually humourous ones, such as the party’s first night in the hotel which seems to simply be an excuse for each character to compete for who is the most extreme. Some parts were quite touching: the romance between Wayne and MeLann the kandra is quite sweet; as is War’s growing fondness for his fiancèe, Steris.
It is just a good romp with plenty of fun and action.
If that’s all you expect, it delivers!
And there may be a hint that Kelsier – the Survivor – may be alive somehow somewhere.
I’m going to ‘fess up here.
This is no great work of fiction. This is not a literary masterpiece. It is neither lyrical, resonant or thought-provoking – those three adjectives appearing more and more regularly on my blog as praise-words for novels. It does not sparkle with intriguing new metaphors; its prose does not ring with the clarity of a bell; its characters rarely emerge beyond sketchy two-dimensionality.
If you’re looking for these things, you’ll not find them in this book and you’ll be disappointed.
If, however, you’re looking for a good, rollicking, fun burst of inventiveness, you’ll be happy.
This is the second of Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne series and cracks straight on from the first, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. The same alternate reality Albertian London re-appears; the same range of inventively steampunk mechanisms and genetically engineered swans, dogs and parakeets return to fill its streets, run messages and transport people. This time, they are added to by insect carcasses, grown to immense sizes, hollowed out, powered by steam and used as public and personal transport. The VW Beetle becomes very literal! We are also re-acquainted with the familiar historical cameos of Lord Palmerston, Oscar Wylde, Charles Babbage, Isembard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale. These are now supplemented with Burke and Hare in a less grave-robbing incarnation than you might expect and the philosopher Herbert Spencer.
Hodder uses this second book to expand both the geography and mythology of his world: we see beyond London to the Tichborne estate; we learn of three giant black diamonds with mysterious and mystical powers. Fragments of these diamonds had been used in Spring-Heeled Jack’s time travelling suit in the first book; two are recovered through this one. The third book is clearly set up as a rescue mission to recover the third and final diamond.
As to the core plot here, it revolves around the real legal scandal – for more details of which you can read here – in which a purportedly lost aristocrat returns to reclaim his title. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence against him which led to both his claim failing and a criminal case for fraud against him, the affair roused popular opinions and the imposter received immense public support.
Hodder develops a unique explanation for the support his version of the Claimant received. An explanation which involves mediums, wraiths, a horde of abjectly apologetic and verbose zombies as well as the black diamonds.
The battle towards the end of the book where the “well dressed, debonair and faultlessly polite” walking dead – who are absent for most of the book – have their day, apologising all the while, is ridiculously fun.
“I’m mortified,” one of them confessed as he jammed his fingers into a constable’s eye sockets. “This really is most despicable behaviour and I offer my sincerest apologies.”
Yes, the humour detracts from the tension in the climactic battle. But it’s fun!
Hodder’s imagination clearly steers towards the large-than-life and the grotesque – the Claimant himself is the obvious example. But he writes with enthusiasm and, I imagine, a broad grin. Is his dialogue convincing? No, not really. Is the description of Burton as “the famous explorer” too often repeated? Probably. Are his characters any more than over-drawn cardboard cutouts? Not particularly. Could you drive a horse and cart through plot holes? Probably, if you were so inclined.
Does it matter in this case?
Not a jot!
It reminds me of The Avengers: over-the-top, very silly in places and hugely enjoyable.
You can’t go wrong with Pratchett: he never fails to offer up decent stories with a sparkle of wit, a smattering of engaging characters and a bucketload of humanity – in all its various forms and species!
And Raising Steam continues the pattern: here, Ankh-Morpork’s journey towards modernity is quite literally driven by the arrival of Dick Simnel and his new steam locomotive, Iron Girder. The timeline of the story is pretty lengthy: long enough to establish the railway from scratch, allow the scoundrel Moist Von Lipwig to negotiate numerous land rights (Coalition Government HS2, take notes please) and the railway to be built. The pace of the writing never lets up though as we follow Moist on various missions to further the railway with his goblin – sidekick seems too lowly – confederate? co-conspirator? – friend? – Of The Twilight The Darkness.
There is a secondary plot behind the drive to build the railway: Dwarvish fundamentalist grags rise up to attack the clacks towers (a Discworld equivalent of the Internet), the train and eventually overthrow their own King whilst he is abroad. The two plots then coincide as the train endeavours to return the King to his homeland as swiftly as possible over half finished tracks and impossibly weak bridges. Again, Moist Von Lipwig’s ingenuity and charm – unsurprisingly – succeed to return the King.
Moist is not my personal favourite character in the Discworld series: a little too arrogant, a little too smug; and a tad lacking in scoundrelliness personally. I find him to be a spin doctor rather than a cad or even a rogue. I like more rogue! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great comic invention, just not my favourite as a protagonist.
However, there was a lovely counterpoint between Moist’s spin doctorishness and Dick Simnel: blunt, honest, disarming. Listening to this as an audiobook, the was a slightly northern slightly Yorkshire accent attributed to him which made him a little Wallace and Gromit which may not have been so apparent reading it. The moments with the press where Moist sees Dick pinned down by sly questioning and he rushes to intervene only to find that Dick was more than capable of both reading the subtext of the question, recognising the danger and turning it back on the questioner were lovely!
The main character here, however, is probably Iron Girder herself. The adoration that the people of Ankh-Morpork give her, the tinkering and polishing that Dick Simnel and his apprentices and goblins do to her and her constant upgradings give her a character of her own. Powered by what is referred to throughout as living steam, Iron Girder does become alive in Moist’s eyes to the point where he wonders what she thinks about Dick acquiring a girlfriend. An important question, really, as Iron Girder had previously defended herself from a saboteur dwarf by vaporising him with her steam!
As always with Pratchett, this book does question the whole idea of what life is and, fundamentally, celebrates life in all its forms.
A great, wry, hugely enjoyable read.
Some books are born great.
Some books achieve greatness.
Some books have greatness thrust upon them.
This book is not one of them. It’s not great. It’s not beautifully written. It’s not literary.
But it is immensely fun!
Mark Hodder propels us into Victorian London: the search for the source of the Nile, Stanley, Livingstone, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne, Darwin, Babbage and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; smog, hansom cabs, Penny Farthings. And giant, genetically engineered swans pulling kites in which people can sit.
Yes, giant swans. Yes, genetic engineering. Huge elephantine megadrays. Trained parakeets for delivering verbal messages – spiced with additional swear words of the parakeets’ own choice. Werewolves. Flying steam powered armchairs. Even the Penny Farthings are motorised.
There are two basic sects in Albertian London: Libertines who celebrate freedom, art, poetry and sexual experimentation and their slightly more extreme brethren the Rakes for whom every law is an undue limit on their freedom; and scientists who are split between Engineers and Eugenicists.
Hodder’s London is a steampunk alternate history world which gives Hodder plenty of opportunity to be playful and inventive. At times, I felt he was at risk of becoming somewhat self indulgent in his creativity and re-interpretation of Victoria’s London into Albert’s but there is a cracking yarn at the heart of the story which knots it together.
Our hero is Sir Richard Burton – soldier, explorer and linguist – scarred physically and mentally from expeditions in Africa and the debate with his friend John Speke over the source of the Nile – adrift in a world that seems to be turning its back on him. Until he is offered the position of King’s Agent with the brief to investigate the weird and unusual. Yes, there are weirder and more unusual things in the world than giant swans. Werewolves or loup-garou for example; and Spring-Heeled Jack.
Burton is accompanied and assisted by Algernon Swinburne, the poet whose incarnation here is a libertine influenced by de Sade but small and childish he gives the infamous and deadly Burton something of a foil … and an opportunity to infiltrate the chimney sweeps of London. He was the weakest character in the book for me: he didn’t offer much and the humour he added was a tad puerile and focused on his sexual enjoyment of some of the beatings he received. Whereas the were elements of Holmes about Burton; Swinburne didn’t balance him the way Watson balances Holmes.
The explanation for Spring-Heeled Jack was one that I guessed pretty quickly but is, I guess, a spoiler. Perhaps it will suffice to say that 10th of June 1840 is the critical date in the novel: the day in (true) history when Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria. It has to be true: its in Wikipedia! Imagine the effect of that assassination attempt on his descendants, the shame forever attached to the family. Imagine them wishing that he had never made that attempt…
As I said at the beginning, this was not a great book; it was a fun, well imagined, romp through a steampunk alternative universe. It is creative and well paced; it works as steampunk and it works as an action/thriller.
Good. Clean. Fun.
No real thinking required.
And there’s nothing wrong with that!
This is a debut novel and clearly – whilst self contained – anticipated to be part of a series: not all the antagonists are captured or disposed of and it is a rich world full of potential and two further books have been written The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.
Worth a look?
Right, following on from seeing Philip Reeve in person – gabardine clad, animated and inspirational – and having had the question posed to me of how you could not read a book whose opening paragraph is
“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea”
I thought I’d spend some part of my half term catching up on the admittedly great Mortal Engines.
It is a brilliant book. And I’m about half way through but what struck me was the comparison with China Miéville’s sublime Railsea.
Having looked at the opening lines of Mortal Engines, let’s do the same for Railsea.
“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
There he stands, swaying as utterly as any wind blown sapling. He is quite, quite red.
See here for my earlier review of Railsea
Both books open with a chase: London chasing its mining town; the Medes – Miéville’s hunting train – pursuing a moldywarpe – a gigantic mole that lives beneath the earth on which the rails are embedded. We are thrust by both writer in medias res into an alien, fantastical world and left to fend for ourselves.
Both books open aboard a huge moving mechanical monster: the city and the train. Reeve pursues to personification – monstrofication? – of the city, extending the metaphor of Municipal Darwinism into the guts of the city.
In both books, the narrative focus shifts to a young boy who is unremarkable in every way: Tom the apprentice historian (third class); and Sham ap Shoorap, apprentice doctor. Both boys are orphans; both boys are familiar and recognisable, juggling teen hormones, boredom, frustration, resentment and an unlikely adventure.
In both tales, the boys listen to and feel the vibrations and movement and song of the city or the train. Sham listens to the shift “from shrashshaa to drag’ndragun” as the train’s acceleration is heard through his feet. And Tom “felt the telltale tremor in the metal floor… Dropping his brushes and dusters he pressed his hand to the walk, sensing the vibrations that came rippling up from the huge engine-rooms down in the Gut… boom, boom, boom like a big drum beating inside his bones.”
I’m not sure why I respond to this so strongly. Perhaps any writing which makes the effort to go beyond mere visual and auditory description appeals – Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, if I recall rightly, was very odorous. But the sensuality of touch is so evocative and compelling for me.
Both Reeve and Miéville are clearly deeply seated in this steampunk milieu, both of them delighting in the imaginative and linguistic possibilities… But let’s glance at them as characters themselves.
Philip Reeve has adopted the style and dress of the nineteenth century. Looking at him, one expects either a footprint of a monstrous hound to be discovered by him… Or a sinister promising wardrobe through which a lipn’s muffled roar could be heard.
whereas China Miéville has adopted a style more reminiscent of the street, the football field, he is as (self-consciously?) urban as Reeve is urbane.
And Miéville is already – and Reeve is quickly becoming – amongst my favourite writers! How fabulous would it be to get them both in the same room! Steampunk nirvana!
It’s odd where my brain drifts off to whilst digging on the allotment!