Posts Tagged ‘George R R Martin’

The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

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I’ve been meaning to get round to reading Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy for a while but haven’t managed to find the time recently. Work. Children. Babies. Goatee growing. You know: the things that take up your time.

But with the summer holidays coinciding with a new book, Half A King, I thought I’d start there.

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Half A King is a fantasy novel aimed at the Young Adult audience which is a difficult one to succeed with: the pace required to satisfy a modern teen male audience brought up on video games, instant gratification and the internet can be inimical to the development and depth required to create an authentic High Fantasy world.

Does this one succeed?

Not entirely, in my opinion.

Gettland is one of the kingdoms around The Shattered Sea, the world of the novel. Whilst fictional, The Shattered Sea has echoes of Norse and Viking culture and language which lends the novel both a familiarity and alienness. It’s not as ubiquitous in our culture as the Greek or Roman mythologies of the Low Fantasy Percy Jackson series; but stories of burning longboats and raiding parties are still part of most school children’s education.

The novel focuses on Yarvi, second son to the King who unexpectedly ascends the throne in the opening chapter, following the deaths of his father and older brother. The novel proceeds to follow his slightly tenuous grip on the throne in a series of adventures and set backs. At its heart, it is a coming of age book as Yarvi is forced to follow a journey into adulthood. As is typical of this genre, our unlikely hero collects unlikely allies and forged unexpected friendships to aid him on his journey.

Abercrombie maintains the pace of the novel well: Yarvi’s various exploits are episodic and at times we seemed to lurch from one incident to another. Only once or twice does Abercrombie slow things down enough to try to develop characters and their relationships. For me, it marred the book a little.

Nor was I terribly keen on the main character, Yarvi. He started engagingly enough: the youngest son, rejected because of a malformed hand, reticent and shy, forced into a role he did not desire and for which he was ill-suited. So far, so good. But he becomes an altogether less engaging character as the novel progresses and far more blood thirsty and distinctly lacking in empathy. The attempts to humanise him – through his friendships with Rulf, Jaud and Ankram and the hint of romance with the somewhat exotic navigator Sumael – did not convince me. It’s hard to give specifics without giving spoilers away but there is one point in particular when I was quite shocked by his lack of empathy.

As someone who dislikes violence, I was also mildly concerned that violence – or more precisely “steel” -was often viewed as the “answer” to almost every problem. In fact, on several occasions, we were told exactly that. I’d have liked Yarvi, having been trained for the Ministry, a scholarly and advisory role, to have been more reliant on his wits and tongue and less reliant on befriending people to fight for him.

One character I did like a lot, though, despite his fairly minor role, was Grom-gil-Gorm, a neighbouring King. His presence was quite magnetic, especially as we generally viewed him from the point-of-view of Yarvi kneeling at his feet.

There is something very much of the Game Of Thrones atmosphere in this novel: Laithlin, Yarvi’s mother, is reminiscent of Cersei Lannister; the historical-fantasy world; the inter-familial violence; the competing religions; the ambiguous characters trying to balance honour and ambition. Personally, I found Phillip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur more effective on many levels and navigating the same ocean with far more satisfying results. For my review of that book, see here.

Another blog review on this book is here.

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!

Fantasy is my (not so) secret (not so) guilty pleasure in reading. Fantasy introduced me to reading through The Hobbit and Tolkien. Fantasy was my escape from teenage tedium … my family was far too middle class to have angst!

And I still enjoy a healthy dollop of fantasy, as readers of this blog will realise. It’s comforting and secure to read; a familiar cast of characters whose joy is not hindered by their being clichés but rather derived from their being clichés. The dark mages drawing sinister powers; the green warlocks and Druids steeped in nature lore; white healing clerics; a dark focus of malevolence seeking to subdue the world; wise old men; gifted young disciples; innocent maidens. The quest. The Force, the Dark Side, Jedis, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke, Emperors… formulaic and predictable but comfortable.

Nowadays the fantasy world is dominated by giants: Brandon Sanderson, George R. R. Martin (is it possible for anyone with an alliterative double-R. middle name not to write fantasy in a post-Tolkien world?), Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan… Even J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.

And where in this world does Clarke fit?

Off to one side I think.

She does not simply shake the dice of fantasy writing elements (no doubt dice hewn from the bones of some chthonic beast whose ribs even now tower over the city of New Crobuzon) and roll to see what combinations appear. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is utterly unique and enthralling.

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The first thing Clarke tells us is that magicians exist in England and, specifically, in Yorkshire. Not just one but an entire Society of magicians. Note: the Learned Society of York Magicians. No coven, no cabal, no caste. Not even a fellowship. A “Society”. Because these “magicians” perform no magic but study magic. Magic has died out centuries before.

What Clarke gives us is in fact a rather authentic sounding Austenesque pastiche of social satire. Even when Mr Gilbert Norrell is discovered as a practising magician he is neither the Dark Lord nor the Wise Mentor nor the precocious Apprentice. He feels as if he has stepped from the pages of Dickens: a

a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

These words of Dickens describing Scrooge could just as easily be applied to Norrell in his Regency powdered wig, his jealous covetousness of all things magical – especially books and knowledge – and his tendency to tire his listeners with long, tedious and not-terribly interesting historical accounts.

And Strange? Strange, on something of a whim after hearing a prophecy to do with magic, decides to become a magician too. Strange is perhaps the closest to the clichéd Precocious Apprentice. Norrell teaches him but, whereas Norrell’s knowledge come from books, Strange has a more intuitive and perhaps more innate magical touch. He is younger, more dashing, more daring in his exploits in the Napoleonic Wars, more charismatic. More Byronic. Whom he meets and doesn’t terribly like in the latter part of the book.

These two eponymous gentlemen meet, bicker, admire, fall out with, fear and reconcile throughout the novel and their relationship is fascinating. And they surround themselves with a vibrant cast of supporting characters: Lasselles and Drawlight, the disreputable gentleman-friends of Norrell; Arabella Strange, Jonathan’s wife; Lady Pole; Vinculus, the ambiguous street magician and vagabond; Stephen Black; the Johns Childermass and Secundus; Flora Greysteele. Even the shopkeeper who is in love with Stephen Black and plays absolutely no part in the drama is beautifully written and wholly credible.

The heart of the novel, though, lies in neither them nor their relationship but in their work: English Magic. And the noun is preceded by the adjective almost exclusively. Divisions and antitheses abound in the novel: north and south; master and servant; Christian and Faery; Norrellite and Strangeite; reality and fantasy; sanity and madness; black and white; day and night. At its heart, however, is a core of Englishness.

An Englishness represented by an utterly key character: John Uskglass, The Raven King, The King of the North, The Nameless Slave. Uskglass, stolen to faery as a babe and returning as a youth to conquer and rule Yorkshire and Northern England for centuries through magic is spoken of, sought, sworn by, denigrated and discussed so much in the text that he feels ubiquitous. He is a legendary figure. Arthurian. Not quite trusted.

He does appear as a character. I think twice. Possibly for a total of three or four of the thousand or so pages of the book. I struggle to recall a character who is so monumental in a novel but so (almost) entirely absent from it. Even when he does appear, his presence is ambiguous: he is no returning saviour, no hero; he does not defeat the enemy nor aid either Strange or Norrell.

But then, is he absent? The trees and birds and hills and snow and (inevitably) rain of England are woven into the fabric of Uskglass as they are parts of the fabric of English magic and the very landscape of England and landscape of Englishmen is a character in its own right. It is this which defeats the enemy in the end: the country of England. Not its magicians nor its politicians but its own self. There is no pseudo-scientific system of magic here as some (more often American) writers tend to labour – and I’m not knocking that, Sanderson, Rothfuss et al, there’s a clear and genuine pleasure in your creation of and our exploration of your systems – but here the magic is so much more effective for remaining mysterious, mythical, not always even useful. It is so English that the final defeat of the threat is achieved by a combination of mistakes, misnomers and misconceptions.

And Clarke’s antagonist, the Gentleman With The Thistledown Hair is remarkable. She manages to create a genuinely creepy and potent antagonist, clearly extraordinarily powerful and dangerous, without making him evil. He is just himself: avaricious, capricious, self-centred, fearful and utterly lacking in empathy but also generous and to an extent loyal. He is faery and possibly mad by human standards and wholly amoral with no conscience. But he is as astounding a character in his self-centred loquaciousness as Uskglass is in his self-effacing quietude.

One of Clarke’s stylistic features which I loved but many have been irked by us her use of copious footnotes. Every chapter bears up to a dozen, which by the end of the novel become self-referencing. They also reference folklore (which is where a lot of the depiction of John Uskglass derives), historio-magical texts, collections of letters and articles and even future biographies of the main characters. I can understand why there was a danger of them becoming tedious and gimmicky but, for me, they worked extremely well and created the illusion of a massively extended, immersive and patently English universe.

And I have to say that listening to this was a pleasure with the dulcet tones of the wholly apt Simon Prebble! Extremely good casting from Audible!

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I am conscious that I haven’t managed to post on here for a while… Primarily because I’ve not managed to finish a book for a while.

Now, there are a number of possible reasons for this…

    1. I am just very very lazy…
    2. I have been doing a lot of work for, well, work…
    3. Olympics
    4. The kids are down and my me-time has dissolved…
    5. Possibly having five or six books on the go at once has diminished my completion rate.

So, these are the books currently being read concurrently on the ereader, depending on mood, tiredness and time!

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And that’s in no particular order and doesn’t include the (re-)reading needed to write schemes of work for school….

Sure I must complete one soon…!