Saturday 18 May 2019

The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes

When Angry Robot tweeted about this book a few weeks ago, I jumped up and down in excitement and was delighted when I got a NetGalley ARC. The idea of a detective in a dream-land of ideas and stories? Gold. And the detective is a fluffy Triceratops, greatest of the dinosaurs?

I was, and am, actively jealous of Tyler Hayes for having the idea first.

What I didn't know at the time was that the book is written in present tense, which would have cooled my excitement no small degree. That's my one big irrational turn-off. I feel a little guilty writing a review of it now, for I am about as suited to this task as a vegan is to reviewing a steakhouse, but I read the book so here comes the review. Take it as you will.

Hayes dreamland - the Stillreal - is a cool place. It's like Toy Story meets Sandman. It is also a big place, ranging from kids' toys to conspiracy theories and everything in between. Detective Tippy covers most of it and between that and the need to lay down the logic of the Stillreal, a lot of The Imaginary Corpse is taken up by exposition. Sometimes I actively cheered that choice. Sometimes I felt a little let down; not everything about the Stillreal excited me, which is likely with such a big palette being used.

Either way though, the size of the setting impacted the story itself. Tippy's investigation is straight forwards and there wasn't much of a subplot, with Tippy staying focused on the case. The case itself seemed to be as much about the setting as anything, being more Howdunnit than Whodunnit or Whydunnit. And while that is cool, I think the lack of Who and Why led to a loss of hook in story and in development of the characters. I enjoyed reading about Tippy, Miss Mighty, Spiderhand and all, but none of them are characters I'm gagging to read about again (although a book about Miss Mighty and Doctor Atrocity squaring off would be good value).

Tone wise, it's a slightly dissonant blend between the classic gumshoe "Tough Guy with a Big Mouth" narrator and Disney-esque Power of Friendship moments. The first half of that didn't quite work for me and I think that's partially on a lack of situations to work his big mouth on, but the emotional moments hit home, particularly near the end. But then, when looking back, I see that I liked this story most when it was about the crazy place called the Stillreal and less when it was a detective story. SO that might be why.

All in all, The Imaginary Corpse is (for me) one of those books that tries to do everything and has a lot of near-misses on the satisfaction count as a result. It is a pleasant read, but doesn't achieve the sort of hyper-fun romp you get from the best Fantasy Detective stories as a result. But all the elements are there where it will be that romp for someone who does connect with Parsons on what he tries. And there'll be a lot of people who enjoy The Imaginary Corpse simply because it tries something new and larger than life even if they don't enjoy everything in the book. After all, I did, and that's with one of my most hated narrative choices in there.

So if anyone's looking for something different, something whimsical and imaginative and fun, step this way.

(I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley from Angry Robot in exchange for an honest review - thanks peeps!)

Wednesday 15 May 2019

What I See When I Look At Game Of Thrones

As we near the finale of Game of Thrones, I think I've reached the point where I'm more interested in the conversation about the show rather than the show itself. That is not intended as an insult of the show mind; its more a state of wonder at the volume and variety of opinions surrounding it. I've never seen anything like it in fantasy. I'm not sure I've seen anything like it in entertainment full stop.

It has reached the point where I think Game of Thrones as a Rorschach Test, for everyone seems to be seeing something different. And while I mostly consider that a bad thing, as I sit here typing this I'm considering whether it might be good. Its certainly interesting from a storytelling point of view

The reasons for this are mostly obvious. The size of the story. The expectations. The strange case of the book that ended as a TV show written by someone else. One that I think is critical, and obvious, but not mentioned as much as it should be, is the extent to which the premise of the TV show itself as changed. It started in the vein of the great drama/soap operas, seeking viewer satisfaction through violent plot twists, gradual reveals and tense confrontations. Nobody was safe. The signature moment was the Red Wedding.

Over the last few seasons though, it has felt more like something from Marvel. The action scenes seemed to be the most important. The Battle of the Bastards seems as good an example of a signature moment as any; maybe the moment where Jon is standing in front of an entire army and doesn't end up dying, which is in itself a far cry from the corpse count of the early seasons. Arya's experience caught up in the crush of the sack of Kings' Landing was amazing to watch, but it is hard to imagine that many near-death experiences happening for anyone in Season One.

I am a big believer that there is an unspoken, unofficial contract between artist and fan when it comes to big series. "Support me and there'll be more of it just like this". That comes completely undone when you get a tonal shift like that. Worse, the internal logic of the show ends up in an even bigger state than the Iron Fleet. The result is that each fan ends up with a slightly different view of what exactly it is that's good about the show and what makes sense.

Multiply that by the number of meaningful arcs that GRRM left in and you get the Rorschach Test we have in front of us.

As I said, I do consider this a bad thing. A few exceptions aside, stories are meant to communicate a narrative so clearly we all know what happened and agree that was the way it should have happened. That doesn't happen with Game of Thrones. The break in internal logic is never repaired. It will be interesting to see what happens with the spin-offs and other planned fantasy TV programmes, because I suspect that's the true test of just how annoyed people are with Game of Thrones; whether they come back for more.

But can it be good? Has the show's ambiguity helped draw in more fans? I've no idea how you'd even go about proving that causation but Game of Thrones is a monster and the change in tone hasn't dented that at all. The 'Will She, Won't She' arc of Dany has probably generated a lot of attention for the show. Now that we are here and many (including myself) don't like either the outcome or the execution it may seem like a bad idea, but for most of the show's history it's been excellent.

More over, can a story that is looking to be deliberately ambiguous study Game of Thrones for lessons on how to do it? I suspect the sheer scale isn't repeatable for every story but maybe careful breaking of internal logic can be the missing ingredient for some. I mean, lets be honest; there's a lot of advice for fantasy writers out there to be rigorous with their internal logic, but its not hard to find moments that jump the shark in most of the recent big fantasy releases. Maybe a willingness to go light touch once one has gained the fans' trust is actually a good thing.

I think time will tell how much they got right and wrong in the ending of Game of Thrones. I think there are some people who hate it now who'll come round and that there will also be people happy to go with the flow for now who'll look back and ask "What was I thinking" if they re-watch. I don't think the controversy will go away, but a million opinions might go down to about a thousand or so. Right now I'm disappointed because a lot of the Chekhov's Guns I expected to go off have failed to hit the mark. But maybe in time, it'll all make sense. That's the thing about a Rorshach Test; almost anything can be seen there.

Monday 6 May 2019

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Shortly before reading A Brightness Long Ago, I was wondering whether something like Line of Duty could work as a book. Whether if, once removed from the soundtrack of awkward pauses, slight tonal inflections and shifting facial expressions, a story built on the slowest and most thorough accumulation of details can work. It is a foolish question; Line of Duty is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the modern age.

I mention this because while reading A Brightness Long Ago, I often considered the similarities between John le Carre and Guy Gavriel Kay, and that consideration started with their shared willingness to write as slowly as they like in the sure knowledge their fans are enraptured regardless.

Mind you, the main person Kay reminded me of is himself. It reminded me most of Tigana, both for the renaissance Italy inspired setting and the main overarching plot of ordinary people caught between the millstones of two enemies. But the nature of the rivalry reminded me more of The Lions of Al-Rassan; the sudden fierceness of love of The Last Light of the Sun.

The main character, Danio Cerra, does feel rather original though. The story chronicles his youth and early rise in the time of these two millstones, great mercenary captains seeking to secure their power in a land of greater powers. The story concentrates mainly on a few main key events and from there on, follows the unpredictable ripples of those events.

Some of it is told as a first person narrative by Danio; other parts are told in the third person from the perspective of the characters involved. Most parts are told in the past tense, a few in the present; most often the mercenary Folco and his niece Adria, but it is also used when recording the thoughts of the souls of the recently slain. This variety of approaches allows for a huge amount of nuance and shade to be brought to the said few main key events, which is something I believe Kay shares with Le Carre.

Of course, the origin of the recognition of things shared is the slowness. Kay quite deliberately puts the cart before the horse, relaying page after page of scene setting and back story before getting to the actual incident. The effect is to layer the plot with tension; both that of the slow build up and nervous questioning of when something terrible will happen, and that which comes with the empathy we build for people we spend so long with. I put this book down frequently, but often it was only for five or ten minutes to just let the ideas sit within me. Others will disagree, say that this book is too slow and too devoid of action. That will be a very fair criticism from those to whom it matters highly, but such is the skill that Kay works with, the majority of those who are willing to read slow books will not agree with it.

The biggest similarity though is the underlying theme of ordinary people changed and crushed by the powers that be, their own drive and desires, and sheer dumb luck. The angle of approach is somewhat different for in A Brightness Long Ago, the changes are positive more often than negative, and more about how one moment can stick with you forever and change who you are. Sometimes the changes are huge, forcing characters to notice the world how it really is and what power they have. Sometimes the changes are small, more a matter of the character's circumstances than their thoughts, although that too will change them. But there is something of Le Carre's exacting pressures and psychological maiming here too, although here the pressure comes from warfare and societal pressures. That pressure mostly affects the female characters, or men affected by the injustices inflicted on them; there is a quiet but clear feminist strand to this book.

It is very difficult to find anything negative about A Brightness Long Ago. The extremely unrushed quality of the story does at times go further than it should and leave me a little bored, but that never lasted long. In more or less every other facet - characterisation, storytelling, prose - it is excellent. At times it is sublime. Too many times for be to pick out a favourite. However, I do have one mild critique, and that is the final dramatic point is not the most satisfying and that after it, the story meanders around for a little more as it establishes the consequences. I suspect that, given how A Brightness Long Ago is a story of the power of the memories those formative moments of our youth, that is somewhat the point. The moments happen and Danio's memories become less clear. His life becomes less dramatic. And when that got me to consider how my brightest memories are increasingly long ago, I did feel very emotional. And is it right to criticise an ending that does that?

Some might be put off by the relatively minor use of supernatural elements compared to the rest of the genre. I hope not but it is possible. I sometimes think Kay's sparing usage is the reason he is not routinely mentioned as one of the genre's titans of today. Sometimes I think it is because of the literary nature of his writing compared to the action-adventure thrust of so much of fantasy. Maybe it is simply a perception brought on by the Atlantic. In any case, A Brightness Long Ago proves that Kay should be considered among the titans and that books built on the slowest and most thorough accumulation of details can work.

(An ARC for this book was provided by Hodder & Stoughton in an exchange for an honest review; I thank them for giving me this opportunity)