Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Girl With all the Gifts (Spoiler free) review

This was another book that consumed me. It has that same kind of disconnection that aberrant normality with which Orwell's classic 1984 opens. For Orwell's Winston Smith, the clocks striking 13 at the end of the opening line.  For Carey's Melanie it is the idea of a child in a prison, a child who must be strapped into a restraining chair before she can be taken to class, a child for whom all this is nothing more than she expects.  She endures the unendurable with the innocent acceptance of one who knows nothing else.  But all things change and the onion layers of the world that M.R.Carey has created are gradually peeled back with surgical precision.

The story is told predominantly in the present tense and this kind of feature usually annoys me - it can feel amateurish.  In Carey's hands it is an effective device to make the story more edgy.  We see the tale unfold from five different points of view.  For me, the fact that all of them speaking to the reader in the present tense giving no reassurance that this is reflection on a tale that has been safely consigned to their past.

All five voices are beautifully rendered, faithful to the drives and motivations of the characters yet allowing each one to grow and adapt to teh changing currents of the story.  Most notably including the eponymous heroine - our would-be Pandora.  She is a child of imprisonment, an utter innocent, and yet gifted with an intelligence beyond that of all the adults around her. It is a difficult persona to present convincingly and it is to Carey's credit that he manages it so effectively.

The other characters are portrayed with equal clarity, their obsessions and their preoccupations, and after Melanie, I think my favourite is the Sergeant for these are the two whose journey most enthralled me.

The Girl with all the Gifts set off associations in my mind with other books, a touch of Roald Dahl's Matilda, a brief hint of Emma Donoghue's "Room" all stirred in with a healthy dose of every post apocalyptic nightmare story there's ever been.

The writing is crisp and economical, no words wasted, nothing you can skip or skim or even put down.

I have read two great books in under a week and must be wary of starting another of such quality, for fear that I will lose all touch or interest in the real world.

I'm still thinking about the book a day after finishing it, haunted by thoughts and the references in the plot that unleash little echoes or after-shocks.  It is a clever intricate story that works well.  Its threads get into your mind and bind you to it!


Monday, 24 March 2014

Review of Prince of Fools (Spoiler Free)

I was lucky enough this week to get an ARC of Prince of Fools which was here when I got home from work on Thursday and which I have just finished two days later in some rather intensive reading.  Loved it.  Gave it five stars and have posted a review on Goodreads.

I have also copied the review below.

In his afterthought at the end of Emperor of Thorns Mark Lawrence reflected on the risk he took in deciding that the Thorns works (unlike the Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy) would indeed finish emphatically and conclusively as the trilogy that the story demanded. In considering whether he should have surrendered to commercial opportunism and dragged more books out of our favourite anti-hero he wrote "in years to come when I'm eating cat food cold from a tin I may wish that I had." Well, Jorg's story may have been brilliantly told, but Jalan's is just beginning and I have to say there is no risk whatsoever of Mr Lawrence eeking (or eking) out his years on unheated petfood.

For a book that has parenthood as one of its many themes, it is perhaps invidious to start by comparing Jalan to Jorg.  No child likes to be compared to their siblings, preferring any judgement to be based on the absolutes of their own merits, rather than the relative ones of their relatives.  But for those of us who came to Lawrence's writing through the intoxicating wickedness of Jorg Ancrath, it is important to see if that magic could be sustained in a different vessel.

What is there that people will recognise?

Well there is the elegant simplicity of the writing.  Mr Lawrence does not batter the reader around the head with the size of his vocabulary, he simply arranges words and sentences in ways that entrance and surprise.  This is a book which is impossible either to skimread or to put down, and readers would be well advised to start this at the beginning of a weekend where they have plenty of free-time (and an understanding family).  Jorg gave us more quotable quotes per chapter than any of the contemporary works of fantasy fiction.  Short pithy statements that turn our thinking on its head and reveal a truth we always knew but had not seen.  There is enough in Prince of Fools to spawn another welter of poster contests as readers seek to find an image to harmonise with the words.

A couple of examples that tickled me were these - but I am sure quotes will sprout up like spring daffodils across the pages of Goodreads once the book is officially released.
"Enjoy the world while you can I say.  A shallow enough philosophy by which to live, but shallow is what I've got.  Besides deep is apt to drown you."

"It's good to steer a man in the direction they want to go.  It blurs the line between what he wants and what you want."

There is also the persuasive perspective of the first person point of view. You can not know a man until you have walked a mile in their shoes, or read 500 pages in their head.  All people, be they heroes, cowards or criminals believe their actions to be the best most sensible response to the situations they find themselves. We came to a grim understanding of the moral free id that was Jorg, we also come to a grudging admiration for the decadence driven dandy that is Jalan.

The glimpses of a post apocalyptic society that has sunk into medieval magic and necromancy provides a fascinating backdrop and opportunities for us to see so many familiar objects in unfamiliar ways.

There are also some familiar faces, characters that walked the Broken Empire with Jorg are seen here from a different angle.  Jalan's story runs side by side with Jorg's their paths crossing but not quite touching, as though two zig-zagging paths of light and dark ran side by side.

There is also the character driven nature of the plot, our heroes hack their way through the landscape shaping the story by the force of their personalities.

But while there is that similarity of style, stature and setting for the writing, that reassuring family resemblance between the Prince of Fools and the Prince of Thorns, there are also differences.

Jalan, though imbued with much of Jorg's eloquence and wit, is a character of quite a different mettle. The opening scenes of both books set the tone for their leads.  We met Jorg in the aftermath of a conquest and learned of his cold dead heart through his reactions to it. We meet Jalan also fresh from a conquest of his own, and similarly  drawn in by the passion and the peril that his pre-occupations engender.

Jalan is an anti-hero in a different mould and his journey is a different kind of one.  Jorg was returning home, when we met him his road journey reaching its conclusion. Jalan's is about to start.

Jorg commanded the stage like Shakespeare's Richard III, casting a shadow over the other players.  We loved Makin but we saw him as Jorg's foil, his conscience sometimes, but never his equal. Jalan shares the limelight with Snorri, a man with his own story and with more than enough heroism for two men - which in the circumstances is quite fortunate.

(by the way, to cope with my own Jorg withdrawal symptoms I did a 1500 word Jorg short as part of the fantasy-faction March short story competition on the theme of fan-fic.  Entry 6 "The Road to Arrow" )

Saturday, 1 March 2014

I'm Running up that Hill

It struck me this morning, as I tried to clear the decks of all the extraneous business of everyday life that gets in the way of writing, that writing a story is a bit like climbing a mountain.   Please note from my title that I'm thinking more of Kate Bush than Julie Andrews as the musical accompaniment to this piece.

I know for some authors the writing process is a journey of discovery.  They have in mind an interesting situation and combination of characters and essentially let the story follow its own course.  For them, I suspect, the writing process is like hacking through the amazonian jungle and uncovering secrets they hadn't even thought of at the start, like stumbling upon some abandoned machu picchu site.

For me the plot came first.  I had an idea always of the end point.  It loomed like the summit of a mountain at once extremely visible and yet by its distance, dimly perceived.

Writing the bloodline trilogy has been a process of climbing that mountain.  Along the way there have been unexpected mini-peaks, the odd cravasse and some narrow ridges along which I have had to tread warily. At this point perhaps I should admit that my mountaineering exploits are limited to reaching the top of a stepladder in order to fix a satellite dish with duct tape. Hence we may have reached the limit of my ability to exploit this analogy, or at least to do so without offending anyone with a more than passing acquaintance with crampons (whatever they are).

Anyway, what fascinates me is how the detail in that snow capped peak becomes more apparent as I draw near.  I am 36,000 words into Master of The Planes, which will conclude the trilogy.  While my certainty about the endpoint is unchanged, the precise line of final ascent is shifting.  New opportunities emerge. Characters I had originally envisaged as discardable extras to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of the protaganists, suddenly remerge and assume pivotal importance as all trails, no matter how they may lift and separate, all lead to the peak.   And the story feels so much the better for it as various different arcs share a common climax (no sniggering at the back there).

So, as I scamper hopefully towards the end of part one (of five), I find myself thinking that maybe I am not so different from those jungle slashing plotting-phobics as I thought.  A bit of Dr Livingstone, just as much as Sir Edmund Hilary.