Saturday, 14 December 2019

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

What. A. Name.

Yes. It's comfortably the most metal book name I've picked up in some time. That's why I picked it up out of the work book pile.

You liar, you'll pick up pretty much any book put in front of you.

True. Plus Silverberg has one hell of a rep. But it was mainly the name. You just know if you picked up an album called that, it was be compelling, uncomfortable and full of meditations about death. Particularly with a cover like that! And that is exactly what the blurb promised and that's why, after a quick look at the prose, I took it back to my desk.

Okay. I'll allow it. Blurb/premise, hit me.

Four American college kids set off to the Arizona desert in search of a cult that promises immortality to any group of four that joins them - providing two of them die first.

How is this not a metal concept album?

I don't know. I'm tempted to find my copy of guitar pro and get to work rectifying that.

How about you get to work doing this review?

Chill snarky inner voice. The Book of Skulls is told with all four of the boys getting their own first person chapters and the way Silverberg captures their voices and experiences is the key to this book. Dislike them, find them boring, and you might as well put the book down. Be fascinated with them and you'll be fascinated with this book. Plot wise its a little thin and reliant on tiny subtleties for its increasing sense of tension - this is very much character driven. It's all about how Eli, Timothy, Oliver and Ned react to the creeping realisation of what they are seeking entails and that yes, it is real after all.

They're a very All-American cast (its set shortly after 'Nam). Eli, the discoverer of the eponymous manuscript detailing the cult, is a nice Jewish boy from New York, intellectually precocious and socially backwards. Timothy's a preppy athlete from a New England family with lots of money and heritage, convinced the whole thing's a fake but happy to have an adventure with his friends. Oliver dragged himself up from his poor roots in rural Kansas through relentless hard work and brilliance; a real Abe Lincoln. He desperately wants to beat death. And Ned's an openly gay poet from Irish Catholic Boston, full of mockery at the world - in it for the romance of it. They are stereotypes, but stereotypes with depth and awareness and a few deadly blind spots. Silverberg's ability to throw his voice as all four of them, and to create nuanced social dynamics between them, is masterly.

It's a short book, and the amount of time spent on the road trip itself might throw some people. It's filled with teenage interests, which is to say lots of sex and casual disdain. Other than that and what I've said, I can't think of any reason somebody would particularly dislike this. Its fascinating, it's well written, its creepy - its a masterpiece.

And since I've covered everything a review should - this book is simple in concept - I will now witter on about some of my thoughts about how it plays out. What follows is less spoilers and more me telling you how it ends. Uber-spoilers maybe? Don't read if you don't want to know.

The exact nature of the two must die is that one must commit suicide and the other must be murdered by the other two. And from pretty early on, they start talking about how that will go down, and they all see a likely pattern. Ned's talked about killing himself; he's the most likely suicide, and he even names his price for doing so in his thoughts. And that leaves two strapping great athletes and poor helpless Eli, so that's the end of him. They talk about it so much it becomes natural to suspect it won't turn out that way due to simple laws of drama and sure enough, Eli and Ned are the survivors.

And the why of that, and the wondering about the small little signs on the way, has stuck with me in a big way.


Timothy's the murder victim. He tries to leave and because that results in the cult killing three of the others, Eli murders him. It's not that surprising as from the beginning, he's insistent that it's all a load of crap and he's only along as it'll be a fun thing to do with his friends. Oliver's the suicide, as his suppressed homosexuality catches up with him and he decides he can't live like that. The hints about that are harder to catch, but we do know he's considered suicide because of his perfectionism and constant exposure to death, and there's a certain mechanical approach to his dealings with women. At first it looks like that's because of how obsessed he is with finding immortality, but it spills out by the end. And - I somehow forgot about this until writing the review - Ned's price for suicide includes sex with Oliver, and he seems pretty sure he'd go along with it. For immortality, right? But as Ned says later - he thought Oliver was a classic closet case.


But the exact chain of events leading us there? It starts with the monks in the cult ordering the four to share their darkest secrets; one to another, only one at a time, never reciprocal - never to be shared. Ned starts and admits to Timothy that he manipulated a gay couple into falling in love with him, so hard that they both threatened to commit suicide if he didn't stay with them. Ned called their bluff, they killed themselves, and Ned was left feeling guilty because of just how much of a rush he got from it. Timothy confesses to Oliver than in a drunken rage at being turned down by other women, he raped his own sister. Oliver confesses of his gay experience to Eli, who in turn tells that to Ned - hoping that breaching a trust will be his own worse secret. But when Ned rejects that, he eventually admits his real worse secret - that his scholastic reputation is built on plagiarism.


Or is that not the real reason Eli told Ned? Did he do so knowing, consciously or subconsciously, that Ned will then try it on with Oliver and that might do bad things to Oliver's psyche, removing one obstacle on the way to his own immortality? Did Ned go for Oliver out of lust, or out of manipulative instinct? Eli isn't exactly comforting when Timothy starts to question why he's there either - disdain for Timothy being unable to cope with things he can't fully understand, or a desire for eternal life?


The idea that we're not really sure what we are underneath - what the skull is under the skin - is a big part of this book. The prospect of looming immortality and death forces all four to face themselves in the mirror. Timothy, filled with guilt over his crime and a certain amount of disgust at the meaningless patrician lifestyle he'll lead, doesn't want to live forever. Never thought it was real and when faced with it, he doesn't want it. An eternity of being Timothy isn't worth the candle. Oliver thinks he desperately wants it; after all, a lifetime of watching people die in smalltown Kansas is what led him to become a pre-med student. He wants to fight the Reaper. But he more desperately wants to not be gay. The vehemence of this confuses me a little, even allowing for unstated midwestern conservative values, as it doesn't come through in Oliver for me. He seems very unfussed about life. But maybe that was part of his denial.

Ned's the easy one to figure out. He's the one who knows himself best and has the least shame in being so. He can believe both sides of a contradiction with no fuss. Maybe he came onto Oliver because he's a manipulative little so and so, maybe because he'd had the hots for him for ever. Maybe both. Both would fit; there's a destructive side to his lust, and both fit well enough that I don't mind the lack of certainty. Eli? Eli is the mystery to me. Eli is, from the beginning, someone who keeps wanting to change the rules when it suits him and full of rationalisation over it. But he is also the most socially gauche, the one with the least insight into what makes people tick. But then he was the most desperate for immortality - and it is sad that we hear his plan for immortality in full, but realise he will remain part of the cult for as long as his life does actually last and will never fulfil it. All that death for nothing. Maybe that's the point of the book.

In any case, I will be thinking about the point of The Book of Skulls for a long time. And that's the point of any book.


Monday, 9 December 2019

On Violence and Fig Leaves

T'other night, while half-asleep and looking to pass time while I waited for my wife to fall so soundly asleep that my snoring wouldn't get me punched, I clicked on an interview of Anna Smith Spark by Womble with the result that I woke up again. The reason for this was mostly this question and answer:


"Your series has both shown the huge attraction of violence and its horrific repercussions?  What fascinates you about this in your work and do authors need to be responsible and show the uglier side of battle including the victims of it?

Again, I think the stories I grew up hearing and reading had a huge influence on me – Greek and Norse mythology, for example, both have a very complex attitude to war, neither are remotely simply ‘anti-war’, but, as the products of a society immersed in violence, both are very aware of the personal consequences of war. Think of that great, terrible scene in the Iliad when Hector says goodbye to his wife and baby son for the last time – it’s impossible to read that scene without being aware of the horror and pity of war (and remember listeners would have been very aware what will happen to all the characters, Hector’s death isn’t a shock plot twist but a fundamental part of the shared experience of listening to the story), yet Hector’s speech is all about how he wants his own son to grow up to be a great warrior. War isn’t seen as good or bad, but as some terrible inevitable thing, like being ‘pro or anti’ famine or pestilence or flood. It happens, it’s terrible for those who suffer in it, it’s glorious for those who triumph.

We still today hugely fetishize military prowess and violence as something to aspire to, just adding in a woolly-minded coda about ‘but only if it’s to uphold good’. The current cultural obsession with superheroes depresses me, frightens me. Someone makes a quick speech about how violence is a last resort in the face of evil, not something to be celebrated … then immediately trashes half a city in a massive consequence-free CGI explosion. If I watch one more sub-Tolkien ‘no one wants to live in these times …’ speech immediately followed by an uncritically black and white smash the baddy fight scene, I’ll commit violence myself. I think we absolutely need to show deeper consequences, look at what violence ‘for the greater good’ actually means.

And think also very deeply and critically about the way we other the proponents of violence, refuse to concede that these evil inhuman beings are … just trying to look out for each other, following orders, wanting to get on in life, frightened, hopeful, just like us.  In the Iliad, it’s important to remember, the Trojans are the ‘enemy’ – but also the human side of the story, the ones who are shown in a domestic context, wanting peace. Achilles is the great central hero in the classical sense of the term, but it’s impossible to see him as morally ‘a hero’. Since the Middles Ages, the hero of the Iliad has always been Hector, the leader of the ‘enemy’, the one who loses and dies. That nuance is totally lost in many modern stories that are so uncritically Manichean. Life generally isn’t Manichean. We need to always question our beliefs, ask why we’re doing something and what it might mean for others.  It may be that an act of violence is morally good and necessary, no question. But we still need to recognise that even morally justified violence has consequences for everyone involved.  If I kill someone who is in the act of committing mass-murder, that has to be justified, it can’t not be justified. I am a ‘hero’, yes. But that person I’ve killed …. someone loved them, they looked at the world once and something in it made them happy, and I’ve killed them.

The great danger in sff is that we can present the enemy as literally inhuman, and that basic reality is erased. Orcs, robots, zombies … it’s terrifyingly easy to make the enemy in sff so inhuman that killing them becomes a consequence-free game.

So, yes, we all have a huge moral duty to try to make people think more deeply about the world. Absolutely, yes."

Now, there's a ton of things that made me go "Yes!" (in the silence of my own head) there, not least the thinking about the old stories. But the thing that really got me was that second paragraph, with its anger at the woolly-minded codas - because it's an anger I too have been feeling more and more without being able to put my finger on it until now. Superhero movies are among the worst offenders but there are plenty of fantasy novels that seem to feel the need to jam a "but this is all horrible remember" speech in the space between fight scenes.

I'm sure this is mostly done with the best intentions and that some of the books I'm thinking about might strike others as having done differently. I know how hard it is to balance story elements and how we all have our own slightly different views on the world. If I ever make it, I expect I'd get criticised on such lines, as my ability to understand things greatly exceeds my ability to communicate. So I don't want to be all "Be better! Why aren't you better!". But I do want to put what Anna Smith-Spark said out there in more places for more people to see, and I do want to point out three of the biggest drawbacks of this sort of woolly-minded thinking.

1) Inadequate attempts to show the cost of violence often end up not just failing to show the cost, but accidentally diminishing it and increasing the appeal of violence.

To expand on this, I think of these sorts of speeches as being like fig leafs; just there to make the whole thing seem a bit more socially acceptable. And the problem is that fig leafs frequently call more attention to what's underneath than actual nudity would. The same is true of violence. It draws our attention to it, underlines its importance as the climax. 

What's more, it makes it somewhat taboo. "You wouldn't actually want to do this, it's hard and morally wrong except in this case where it's morally awesome". And breaking taboos is attractive. Obviously, we want violence to have a taboo attached, but the taboo needs to be enforced if we mention it, or elsewise we get the attraction without the caution. Only a little appealing fig leaf.

Of course, violence in the cause of good is widely considered admirable. Its hard We all know that, even if we don't agree with it ourselves. We all seen it shown in many books and movies. Something that's admirable *and* taboo? That's a rare and heady combination. Think back to when you were at school, doing something your mates loved but you knew the teachers would hate to think just how great it is. And that's just what the woollier "Woe is us" speeches do. They make violence a teenage prank. Nothing encourages less thought than that.

2) Framing violence in these terms all the time obscures the truth that not everyone thinks about violence in the same terms.

Go back to what Smith-Spark said about the way mythology saw war; the way they saw it as just another natural disaster. It's just one of many, many ways we know those who came before us saw war and warriors differently. Read Georges Dumezil's The Destiny of the Warrior for one scholarly account of how they viewed warriors in myth, or John Keegan's The Face of War for how soldiers viewed war at different points in history. Uniformly happy campers about it they weren't, but that sort of woolly codas? Often times in fantasy, they feel like modern attitudes in medieval clothes. And yes, fantasy is often like that and that's not wrong, but sometimes it jars.

And even if we are talking about fantasy that's modern attitudes in medieval clothes, its not like there aren't modern people who are just straight up happy when they discover they get to live those times. There's plenty of career soldiers who find they love the taste of war and when the war's done, they're looking for another one. You've got to suspect - like Alan Moore and plenty of others - that most superheroes are of a similar ilk. When they protest "Why does it have to be like this?" it often feels like a lie. And lies weaken the arguments they're used to make, resulting in them being less persuasive. Talking about the huge attraction of violence is often needed to make arguments about the horrific repercussions real - particularly in stories that are, well, based on the huge attraction.

3) Honesty about all aspects of violence make for better stories

Don't get me wrong, you can tell a perfectly enjoyable story about violence while only concentrating on certain elements. I have watched Commando more times than I can conveniently count. It mightn't be the most morally thoughtful entertainment in the world but dear gods it is fun.

But ultimately most stories work based on honest observation of the world we live in. The more honest and observant the author is, the better the story. Bowdlerised versions of violence and simple good vs evil have their place but they rarely live as long in the imagination as stories that have more to them.

Why did Lord of the Rings become the standard bearer of fantasy instead of any of the other early works? There's many reasons, and I suspect the strong notion of good vs evil was one of them, but I'd like to believe the empathy and focus shown to Gollum is part of it as well as the way Frodo suffers through violence rather than winning because of it. Why is Wheel of Time now the most highly thought of from that wave of 80s/90s fantasy? Again, many reasons, but I believe the depiction of ordinary Darkfriends as still being humans worthy of empathy and the way Rand cracks under trauma is a big part. And part of why grimdark took off it provided more honesty about violence - both in terms of appeal and consequences - than 80s/90s Epic.

I would like to believe most people would engage with the ethics of violence when writing stories about it simply because that's the right thing to do. But if anyone needs a little extra encouragement, its probably the right thing for your story as well. It doesn't have to be graphic, or loud, or take over your story. It just needs to be more than a woolly minded coda. It needs to be honest.

And honesty means not putting a fig leaf on the attractions and consequences of violence.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin

Under Blue Moon I saw you... okay, presumably this book has nothing to do with Echo & The Bunnymen. What is it about?

Ehiru is a priest in the city of Gujaareh with powers over dreams; he can draw magic from them, use them to heal - use them to kill. Sunandi is a spy and diplomat from neighbouring Kisua, suspicious and fearful of Gujaareh's intentions - and Ehiru's magic. The uneasy relationship between the two as war looms over Kisua and Gujaareh is the driving force of this tale of mystery, magic and murder set in a quasi-ancient Egyptian setting.

Sounds nifty.

It is very nifty in a lot of ways. This was my first read of Jemisin's work and it is very easy to see what the fuss is about. Her prose is sumptuous. Her world building is bare bones, but what bones there allows the active imagination to build all sorts of detail around. Take for example the ancient ancestral relationship between Gujaareh and Kisua; not only did it make the world feel real to me, but I built a picture of Kisua without really seeing based on that single fact and Gujaareh. The relationship between Gujaareh's various power blocs was also painted vividly in really not that many words.

However... while I admire the hell out of The Killing Moon, I didn't love it. And I'll be honest, trying to figure out why and how to write the review about it was a big reason behind the recent drought, as I just didn't know how.

But you do know right? What is it?

I'm not sure I actually do; just sometimes you have to bite the bullet and put out what you have, even if it isn't good enough.

What I do understand is tied to what CC Finlay calls "narrative momentum" - the combination of pacing and engagement to the characters and stakes. I didn't get that. The pacing is fine, the characters thoughtfully drawn, but neither had me turning pages. Why? I can't really go deeper than that. The Killing Moon worked really well for me as a piece of writing, but as a piece of story it was the sort of date where you have a pleasant chat and go home thinking of other things.

It is possible, thinking of The Killing Moon in comparison with my last review, that I'd have taken more to the characters if I'd seen more of them with other characters they shared deep roots with. I think that draws me in more. This book had some of that, but not enough.

There was little sense of self-discovery either to my mind. And plot wise, the transition from city-based intrigue to trials in the desert and an open threat didn't quite work for me.

So who will love it?

The Killing Moon will appeal strongly to those who place a high emphasis on prose, mystery, and worldbuilding. Bonus marks for those actively seeking settings different from Europe. Gore and humour, not so much. The big question is whether people will like the story and characters better than I did, and I daresay many will. They're well drawn. They're good. Just not quite for me.

And that's really quite annoying. There's been a lot of popular books by popular authors that I'm just not that into. And that's okay. But there's not many such books where I've found them good but just not quite as great as everyone else seems to think. But that's just me. Everyone else should see for themselves.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Why Fantasy Shouldn't Stand in Tolkien's Shadow

So t'other day I was having a discussion on those interwebs and heard someone expressing my bete noire of the moment, that being the idea other fantasy writers are ripping off Tolkien - or as he later put it, that the genre lies heavily in Tolkien's shadow. And I argued with that, as I reflexively do nowdays, but I never said why I thought the argument that it wasn't was important.

So here it is.

It is my belief that the Fantasy genre has an image problem. This comes in many forms, from the irritating barbs you get from casual passers by, to the amusing disavowals of writing fantasy from people writing fantasy for various reasons, to the financially detrimental lack of attention from the mainstream media, to the talent and readers missed by the perception of being for stale pale males.

I am generally unfussed as to where my preferred past times are popular, maybe erring to the side of preferring them not to be, but I would like Fantasy to get the acceptance it deserves and reach everyone who'd enjoy it; I'd like everyone to feel welcome. Also, as someone with aspirations of being an author and friends who are in those trenches right now, the financial viability of the genre is of some interest.

When thinking of the various times I've seen that image problem in action, Tolkien often seems to loom large. I have seen people dismiss fantasy as a genre for the very reason that writers are ripping off Tolkien; more often, its people claiming its just elves and dwarves and nothing real and nothing new, a viewpoint that only really holds up if one believes that fantasy is all just Tolkien. Some of the recent comments from Benioff and Weiss about thinking Game of Thrones was great because it was all about people and wanting people things echo some of the comments I've read from Pullman about Tolkien. And, of course, many people have taken Tolkien to task for his conservatism, or writing things that racists approve of. In short, a lot of fantasy's image problems stem from negative portrayals of Tolkien and seeing the genre as being in his image.

Of course, arguably this an argument for the genre being in Tolkien's shadow, but it's not an argument for wanting it to be there. Its an argument for, if we are given a choice to proclaim how the genre should be seen, for de-emphasising Tolkien. For saying that while his place as a titan of the genre is unassailable, even Everest is but one mountain in the range and that are a great many other takes on Fantasy on the other mountains and that perhaps people would like to examine them if they're not finding what they want near Tolkien. And we do have a choice. And given how influence is a not entirely objective thing, to a certain extent Tolkien's influence is simply a matter of whether we say its a thing or not.

What's more, we do have an incredible range as a genre and to do that down is to do all of us a discredit - which pumping up Tolkien's status does. Both in terms of style and ideas, there's a lot of extremely good authors and books out there, many of which owe little to Tolkien other than his demonstrating fantasy could be a huge commercial success. The fever-dream intersections between reality and myth, the horror tinged urban fantasies, the picaresque heroes and bloody-handed adventurers, the barely fantastical alt-histories, the endless riffing off of myths and fairytales and Shakespeare... the list is long. The list contains the likes of Gaiman, Attwood, Pratchett, Pullman, to name but a few. The list deserves celebration.

And that's difficult to do if we're constantly pointing to Papa Tolkien.

There is no denying that the man has been tremendously influential. He has been huge in putting the genre on the map commercially. Many great authors have been marked by their use of his templates; many by how they've deliberately ignored or challenged it. He has, as this very blog post proves, created the popular image of Fantasy in the public mind. His influence on the genre's history is huge - maybe even overshadowing. But Fantasy has kept expanding and Mount Tolkien remains still. It is only fair to reconsider where his shadow lies today in those circumstances. Questioning his influence - seeking to promote the parts of Fantasy that offer something very different to Tolkien - isn't about trying to downplay what he's done. It's about trying to promote the genre and all it contains to the fullest.

And I do not think that can be done if we continue to agree to stand in his shadow.

Friday, 15 November 2019

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Blimey, its a long time since you put anything up here, you lazy git...

I've been having a bit of a reading slump recently. Two very active holidays in quick succession, a new job, frustration with my own writing. And maybe not fully enjoying what I've been reading. But on Thursday night though, up late after watching the Pittsburgh Penguins rob the Islanders in overtime, I decided I'd stay up a little later to finish The House of Binding Thorns.

Because I had to.

Had to?

I needed to know how it finished. I needed to know how the big showdown went, I needed to know who lived, and I needed to know what final secrets Aliette de Bodard had to reveal. And I did not regret my three hours of sleep that night one iota.

Okay, this sounds good. How about you start from the beginning and tell all the nice people what this book's about?

The House of Binding Thorns is book 2 in De Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen series, a series of brooding and beautiful fantasies set in a post-Great War Paris full of fallen angels and broken people. The first book in the series isn't all that necessary, its a loosely interlinked series, but read it anyway.

That's what the book is about - the notes that the book hits are drama and mystery. For the former, De Bodard reminds me strongly of Guy Gavriel Kay with the almost poetic sense of emotion and the focus on both larger than life characters and characters with ordinary jobs and lives swept into their orbit. For the latter, the gradual sense of something wrong and conspiracy are probably most like Max Gladstone's The Craft than anything else I've read in the genre.

I should point out that The House of Binding Thorns also contains plenty of Vietnamese Rong, moving romantic relationships and magic with echoes of real life occultism. I give all of that two thumbs up.

Well you are a sucker for fantasy mysteries, so no wonder you like it. What else got you?

The characters are the greatest part of this book. Madeline became one of my favourite heroines in the genre this book; suspicious, struggling with herself, too honest for her own good, driven by her fears, and yet ultimately triumphant because of all that (and her rather large brain). As I'm writing this, I took a casual look at the blurb for the trilogy finale and was shocked to see her name go unmentioned - shocked enough that I googled just to make sure Madeleine is in there because it'd be a travesty if she wasn't.

That ability to make characters great and interesting by their flaws is displayed time and time again. It gives them ... well, everything. They feel real. They feel entertaining. They feel both larger than life and very human. No character ever gets all of the page space I wish they could have, which is more a good thing than a bad, because they get plenty and I'm just being greedy. The one real criticism I have to make is I wish we'd heard more about what made them what they are - we got that for Asmodeus and it turned what might have been a two-dimensional stylish villain into a terrifying, tragic force of nature that straddles the line between antihero and villain while bogarting all the best lines.

I would also add that I'm really quite jealous of De Bodard's prose. It is simultaneously elegant and effortless; a perfect marriage of form and function. That also gets me big time.

So you loved it unconditionally, huh?

It started slow. Got to be up front about that. There's a lot of different strands at the start that aren't obviously connected and maybe lack a little something in terms of grip. I'd enjoy each scene for what it was without feeling any sort of building momentum that I needed to know about.

But once that momentum came, then it met every conceivable condition of being loved. Slow start aside, I thought the book was very well paced; I figured out what was going on just as I was beginning to get irritated about the lack of answers, and I figured it out just a little before the characters. To me, that's the author equivalent of a footballer landing a fifty yard pass on a fifty pence piece.

Jeez, calm down, its just a book.

There's no such thing as just a book.

Okay, true. But it won't be for everyone, right?

Nothing ever is. Anyone looking for gore-drenched action is in the wrong place; ditto sneaky heist action, deeply intricate and logical magic systems, and ye olde fashioned fantasy setting. 

Incidentally, I'd love to see Aliette De Bodard write some heist stories now. I recall reading that heist stories are traditionally emotionally superficial; I'd love to see what she could do with that challenge.

Mostly though, I just'd like to see more people love this book, because I think most fantasy readers would.

Monday, 30 September 2019

The Five Books Fing Returns

Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes - Sam Sykes' prose *swaggers*. That's the most important thing to know about this book and for many people, the biggest selling point. Sykes' writing rivals Abercrombie's finest when it comes to portraying the sardonic and cynical. It brings Sal the Cacophony, its protagonist and first person narrator, to vivid more than life.

SSBiB's strength is also however its achilles heel. Because we're always with that strong voice, it can get wearing. Because Sal's personality is so prevalent, readers aren't able to gloss over if they don't like her. And after a while, I realise I didn't. It didn't matter to me whether Sal succeeded or not. So this is a book I won't be finishing.

That doesn't mean nobody else will enjoy it. Lots of people will, and that Abercrombie comparison is a good measuring stick for whether you're one of them. And I'm certainly interested in trying Sykes' work again; maybe on a different day I'd have taken to Sal.

Lord of Midnight by Cassandra Clare - I'm not utterly sure why I picked out Cassandra Clare's work out of the many YA books in the library; I knew I wanted something different for me but there was a lot of different for me there. In any case, I picked it up and am very happy I did, for what Lord of Midnight offered was pretty familiar. It's a book about interesting characters with big hearts and interesting flaws trying to keep their world safe; the same as the fantasy I grew up with.

Okay, yes its in an UF world with Vampires and Faeries rather than a semi-mythical one with knights and dragons, but that's not the important part. The important part is that it captured a type of story I miss and don't find enough of. I didn't really get that so much from the next book in the series but even so I will be returning to Cassandra Clare for more fun twisty emotional feel-good action fantasy at some point in the future.

The King In Yellow by Robert W Chambers - This has been a long, long read for me, as if often the case with older reads. They are reads that demand attention and a certain shift in mindset. A lot of the old supernatural horror - in my opinion at least - requires a level of unease with a chaotic world that doesn't really seem to exist for most people today. Oh, we hate how chaotic the world is, but it's our normal. The slow inexplicable realisation that things no longer make sense is kind of the day to day. Maybe that's just my idiosyncratic take on it, but it seems to be mirrored in what I've heard at least some say.

In any case, once the mindset's adjusted, its full of tension. It's also well written, imaginative and generally entertaining. However, the further I got through, the more critical I felt. Maybe I just got bored with the style, maybe (and probably) the back half of the book isn't as strong. It's still worth grabbing for those who like the subtle horror of Lovecraft or reading the genre's history, but for me I'd have probably been happier only reading half of it.

Voice in the Night by Andrea Camilleri - When I first discovered the Inspector Montalbano books, I went through every single one I could find translated in about a month. More-ish is an understatement. I feel an ass for calling a book 'muscular' but it fits here - Camilleri's (translated) prose and storytelling is powerful, straightforwards and visceral. It forces its way into your brain and grumbles and snaps all its frustrations about the world there, but with so much charm and ruefulness that it's a pleasure. Voice in the Night isn't my favourite of the series - Montalbano's main foil seems to be Catarella, who's never my favourite in the books - but its still rather good. The whole series is.

What Does This Button Do by Bruce Dickinson - I once tried fencing for a year and in that time, I was taught by a man who'd done a fair bit of fencing with Bruce Dickinson. It was a lot of fun and I wish now I'd kept it up (I went with a friend where I was drifting out of the friendship and was worried about the stress on my gimpy ankle). Anyway, this book is also a lot of fun - Dickinson's lived about three lives to everybody else's one - but the parts about Iron Maiden are very much skirted over. It's a bit like ordering a steak dinner and finding that the chips, the sauce, the everything else is wonderful and the steak's a bit small and ordinary. You still enjoy yourself, but feel gypped. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the man, or even just interested in restless high achievers - but walk in beware.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

War For The Oaks by Emma Bull

You know, posing review questions is a great outlet for us subconscious voices. So - War for the Oaks - give it the sell!

Eddi McCandry is a talented but down-on-her-luck rock n'roll musician until the Seelie Fey kinda kidnap her and tell her they need her help in a war with the Unseelie for Minneapolis. It's say Yes or the Unseelie start with her. Eddi's left with the infuriating and shape-shifting Phouka, a long list of questions, a serious case of nerves - and a new band to form.

That sounds like...

A lot of things? Yes. War for the Oaks was one of the founding stones of the Urban Fantasy genre and now, thirty plus years down the line, is made to look just a little cliche by its legion of spiritual offspring. Gotta say, I wonder if Emma Bull ever feels a tad peeved about that, or just proud of her work's influence. As someone with an appreciation for the genre's history, I was excited to read this. But even as someone who doesn't read all that much Urban Fantasy and doesn't get that annoyed by cliche and trope, this did evoke some deja vu at times. It doesn't help that my introduction to Urban Fantasy as a kid was Mercedes Lackey's Bedlam's Bard series, which fishes in very similar waters.

Got it. Urban Fantasy like Urban Fantasy's mama made it. What's it actually like though?

It's fun. Bull's two greatest strengths as an author here are witty banter and evocative descriptions (particularly of the uncanny) and you can build most of a fun story on those alone. My mind's eye saw and heard what Bull wanted it to see and hear and I smiled at the right times. Not that its non-stop wisecracking all the way; there's plenty of fear and nerves in the characters reaction when there should be. It's a story about a small group of people having a crazy adventure, half-laughing at it and half-WTFing at it, and the plot rattles along intriguingly enough. War For The Oaks is in the just straight up entertainment category.

Just how entertaining is it really?

I'd put it down as good but not great. Nothing about it had that "Holy Shit" impact for me - no damp eyed moments, no crowning moments of glory, no really good insults - nothing I'd rave about to my friends. For the most part that's an after the fact thought but occasionally the desire to see some real fireworks occurred while reading. Its hard to give too many details on that without a mahossive spoiler, so I'll simply say that when one early plot point is reintroduced right at the very end, I'm very underwhelmed at what's meant to be a big climax.

And part of that's because that plot point went unmentioned for most of the book. On a similar level, I can't think of a time when Eddi did this really clever thing, or made a really hard choice, or even just a choice that built a high level of dramatic resonance for later choices. Indeed, most of that comes from her bodyguard/sidekick, Phouka, who is unsurprisingly the most interesting and memorable character. But even his motivations feel a little underfleshed, and underfleshed is basically the best way I can think of to describe War For The Oaks' drama. It's still an enjoyable book, just not quite fulfilling its potential for me.

Did you turn to the back at any point?

Three-quarters through when it was too late to finish in one sitting, but too near the end for me to go to sleep without knowing.

Any Other Points of Interest?

Not really. If you love 80s rock, you'll love all the references. I guess from the point of view for anyone looking at representation, there's one black guy and Phouka is described as dark skinned (and also described with a N-bomb by one charming fellow). There's a fair amount of romance. Lots of female characters - although that's kinda the Urban Fantasy standard, isn't it? That's the thing with War For The Oaks. Its a very ronseal book these days (does exactly what it says on the tin). I wish I'd read this back when it was published but, well, I was struggling with not shitting myself and walking then, nevermind reading.

This is at least a straight forwards book to recommend. Interested in Urban Fantasy, Light-Hearted Adventures, and the Fantasy Genre's History? Step this way. Not? Probably not. War For The Oaks probably won't transcend genre lines for anyone. Not anymore. And I feel a sadness now that I've typed that for that's the cruel march of time in a nutshell. But so be it. This is still a good example of its genre.