Posts Tagged ‘Chaos Walking’

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I am a huge Patrick Ness fan!

Let me put that out there at the start of this.

I hugely admired his Chaos Walking Trilogy but was utterly blown away by the visceral emotion and mythic scope of A Monster Calls. There are few books that dig inside you as much as that one.

This book is different again: much closer to the feel of Chaos Walking although without the epic scope and scale – and no less powerful for that.

At one level, the book is a rip-roaring adventure: Seth, our protagonist, dies in the prologue. On page 11. Dies with 469 pages left to fill. Those pages recount what Seth does after his death. Maybe.

Having died in a frigid ocean, in winter, in America he is somewhat surprised to have found himself on the path of his parents’ old house in an abandoned and apparently post-apocalyptic English town in Summer. Alone. Perhaps.

Echoes of I Am Legend, Robinson Crusoe and George Romero’s films – minus the zombies – abound as Seth navigates this empty town, discovers and loots from camping stores and supermarkets. There’s even a discovery of a foot print to make the link to Robinson Crusoe stronger.

Seth discovers – or is discovered by – two other survivors in the town: the defensive and resilient Regine and the delightfully tenderly vulnerable Tomasz. And with them, the book acquires other echoes: a sinister black-clad visored Driver pursues them as if stepping out of a Terminator movie; the world has – or may have – integrated – or been forced to integrate – itself into a digital alternative reality programme in the style of The Matrix.

There are sufficient run-ins with, escapes and rescues from and fights with the Driver that this book could be read purely at that adventure story level.

It does follow the tropes, patterns and cliches of the science fiction / action adventure movie genre.

And behind the adventure that awaits Seth in the world he wakes up in is a beautifully tender and painful tale of growing up. Seth is one of the very few gay characters I can bring to mind in Young Adult fiction. His secret relationship with Gudmund is described in beautifully tender prose. The taking of the photograph, which eventually exposes their relationship, is real and touching and deeply moving. As is the pain of separation between them.

And beneath this coming-of-age narrative is the deeply traumatic tale of Owen, Seth’s younger brother, who was – perhaps – abducted from their home when Seth was eight.

It’s a book of books, of stories, of narratives. Characters’ pasts are revealed in dreams and flashbacks; characters reveal parts of their own stories to each other. The sharing and offering of their own stories rendering them vulnerable and binding the trio together.

Towards the beginning of the book in a flashback, Seth and his friends Gudmund, Monica and H are discussing the cheerleaders and Gudmund considers having sex with one for a bet to which Seth replies

“What,” Seth said, “and then secretly find out that she’s got a heart of gold and actually fall in love with her and then she dumps you when she finds out about the bet but you prove yourself to her by standing outside her house in the rain playing her your special song and on prom night you share a dance that reminds not just the school but the entire wounded world what love really means?”
He stopped because they were all looking at him.
“Damn Seth,” Monica said admiringly. “‘The entire wounded world.’ I’m putting that in my next paper for Edson.”
Seth crossed his arms. “I’m just saying a bet over Gudmund having sex with Chiara Leithauser sounds like some piece of shit teenage movie none of us would watch in a million years.”

And that’s the point. Seth knows how cliched some of the events are. He avoids living in the cliches of these narratives. The existence of convenient cliches cause him to come close to dismissing the reality of the world because it follows narrative tropes. He recognises that last-moment rescues would be expected if he were living through a story. He expects apparently dead antagonists to return for one last assault.

And he questions that. And we question it.

Is the world real? Are his memories and dreams real? Are Regine and Thomasz real? Are they echoes of Viola and Manchee from Chaos Walking? Are Owen, Gudmund, H or Monica real? Is the love between Seth and Gudmund real?

And does it matter?

This is one of the most thoughtful and – dare I use a deeply unfashionable word? – philosophical novels I have read for a long time. And the philosophy within it never becomes pure exposition. It is always embedded in character – and often undermined by either Regine’s pragmatism or Tomasz’ affection. As Regine tells Seth:

“I think I’m the only real thing I’ve got… wherever I am, whatever this world is, I’ve just got to be sure I’m me and that’s what’s real.” She blows out a cloud of smoke. “Know yourself and go in swinging. If it hurts when you hit it, it might be real too.”

In addition to the characters and relationships, the flashbacks and the power of stories, what (else) I love about this book – and I imagine others will be put off for exactly this as well – is that, in the end, on the final page, Seth and we are no clearer to knowing where this world is, how real Seth’s experiences are or what is going on. At all. Ness saw no obligation to explain, tie things up or concretise anything.

The entire book is unsettling. Disrupts our sense of reality. Deliciously tilts our world. And it achieves it through simply written, elegant prose.

Remarkable.

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With a week to go before the summer holidays, my reading list is starting to grow. Currently queued up on the ereader I have the following:

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These are crime thrillers penned, under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, by John Banville who wrote The Sea. I was particularly intrigued by The Black-Eyed Blonde as a new Raymond Chandler book.

Continuing with both the crime and pseudonym motif, I’m also ready to try

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20140713-131647-47807301.jpg which I have so far avoided for the same reason that many others will have leapt on them: Robert Galbraith is the nom-de-plume of J. K. Rowling.

As a break from crime, I’m also looking at

20140713-131832-47912817.jpg which is the new Joe Abercrombie offering, escaping the realism of crime fiction by delving back into fantasy. And I have Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost For Words which satirises the self-indulgent and self-important world of book prizes and awards.

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Slightly more self-consciously literarily, I’ve also loaded up

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Finally, as I am currently reading The Long War (and not hugely enjoying it) for the sake of continuity and completion I also have the third Long Earth book.

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And this doesn’t take into account the paper books I’ve got or the work I need to do over the summer. Or the twelve-month old baby squatting in my floor as I type this. I can just hear my wife’s voice as she reads this saying, “Well, we won’t be seeing much of you then…!”

Of the paper books I’m hoping to get time to read, I’m particularly looking forward to Patrick Ness’ (one of my all time favourite Young Adult writers after the Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls) new novel

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I read Landy’s The Faceless Ones – the third in the Skulduggery Pleasant series – and, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it: a smart and sassy heroine; an enigmatic and intriguing (possibly anti-) hero; a wide range of engaging characters. So I have taken the fact that the current seventh book, The Kingdom Of The Wicked is longlisted for the Carnegie Medal 2013 to catch up on the series starting with this, number one.

And it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

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Skulduggery, the eponymous skeletal hero, is still an engaging character. His own bemusement at his own existence is wonderful.

But the darkness that other characters refer to – his obsession, the hatred that pulled him back from death to inhabit (most of) his old bones, the tragedy that lead to his death – was never felt. At least not by me. And I know that Landy is writing for a relatively young audience but there is the occasional gruesome scene and he doesn’t shy away from impalements, death and torture. I wanted to feel with this book what I vaguely recall feeling with the third: that Skulduggery Pleasant was dark and dangerous.

I also had peeves with Stephanie Edgely as a character here: she is plucky and independent and thats all great … but she becomes too authoritative too quickly, too absorbed into and claiming understanding and knowledge of a world that heretofore she had not known existed. Seriously, Stephanie, you think the Sceptre of The Ancients exists? You’re 12, you’ve known of magic for a weekend, I’m not impressed. You came across as … I’m sorry to say … a bit of a brat.

As for the plot, if you’ve seen it read Harry Potter, you’re in familiar territory. There is a secret society of magic; the mundane world knows nothing of it; an ancient war between good and evil was won by good; evil is making a play back for power; an innocent girl with a hitherto unknown background in magic is drawn into the magical society and saves the world.

There is an ancient magical race known as – somewhat predictably – The Ancients who worshipped The Faceless Ones as gods but who turned against them and created the ultimate weapon, the Sceptre of the Ancients, to destroy or banish them. And once successful, they turned on each other and destroyed the entire race. In the war, the dark side were intent on bringing the Faceless Ones back to earth and allowing them to destroy humanity.

Landy does have fun with his characters names: Nefarian Serpine (nefarious, serpentine), Mevolent (malevolent) and the elders Eachan Meritorious and Sagacious Tome. Even Edgley: the family who live on the edge of the mundane and magical worlds.

In many ways the minor characters are more evocative and intriguing than the main ones: China Sorrows with whom everyone falls in love; the swordswoman Tanith Low who alternates between heartless savage killing and childlike gigging with Stephanie. Apparently Landy’s first draft killed her off but she was saved by his editors who thought the scene too sad. In exchange, Landy was permitted to torture her in each book. What does that say about our society? The character of Gordon Edgley, like Marley dead before the book begins, seems a thinly veiled portrait of Landy himself: a writer who would

systematically subject his hero to brutal punishment in a bid to strip away all his arrogance and certainty so that by the end he was humbled and had learned a great lesson. And then Gordon killed him off usually in the most undignified way possible. Stephanie could almost hear Gordon laughing with malicious glee as she read.

There is certainly enough here to warrant further reading of the series. It is certainly a good, fun and very well-paced book populated by likeable engaging characters. In comparison with other Carnegie award winners – the closest comparison would be Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness as the final book in a trilogy – there needs to be a big shift up in gears for The Kingdom of The Wicked to make the Carnegie Shortlist.