Saturday, 11 October 2014

Half the World - a spoiler free review

A book's quality cannot be judged in isolation but must stand or fall by the effect it has on the reader.  On that score this is, for me, the best of the three Abercrombie books that I've so far read and a damn good book at that. Having won an Advance Reader Copy, I read it at speed.  However, the simple fact is that as the book drew to its climax I had to keep stepping away, daring only to read a few pages at a time,  so tense was the fearful fascination with which it gripped me.  The closest analogy I can think of is watching a horror movie through splayed fingers, ready at any instant to snap everything shut.

Did I care about the characters? - yes.
Did I enjoy the story in all its rich context? - yes
Did the twists and turns surprise me?  not always but often enough and particularly at the end where a book's surprises must always lurk in wait to mug or caress you, and don't expect me to say which.

I had read reviews of the first book in the trilogy "Half a King" from disappointed Abercrombie loyalists. They complained of missing the multiple point of view narrative, the grimly adult plotting and possibly are still in mourning for the character they view as Abercrombie's greatest creation and whose resurrection they constantly pray for.

Though I doubt Abercrombie would have intentionally set out to address those points, this book does in some ways answer those questions.

Half a King had a single point of view; Half the World has two.

Half a King, told from the perspective of a cripple, was more about brain triumphing where brawn could not be made to serve;  Half the World has characters made for war and glorying in it as much as Abercrombie glories in rendering every blood spattered detail, every grunt and gurgle of hand to hand combat.

Half a King opened and closed with a man of peace and  ministry in conference with his tutor.  Half the World opens and closes on the training ground where the would be warriors strive for the master of arms' approval.

So, in those senses at least, this veers back towards the centre of gravity of Abercrombie's style.

But it is still not The Blade Itself.  It is a tale full of death and angst but not a single f-word to be seen as Abercrombie not so much pitches for the Young Adult audience, as tries to tempt them into the dark recesses of fantasy fiction through a little taster.

To that end we have two young adult leading characters who make their debut in a bloody bout by the sea shore.  A girl and a boy.

The girl, Thorn Bathu, is a stubborn feisty child trying to carve her way to acceptance in a male dominated world in honour of the memory of a much loved dead father. (Hmm, those who know my own book, Lady of the Helm will see why such a central character would tick my boxes!).  The kick-ass female heroine - the Eowyn taking centre stage - is a trope of its own, but this is not Conan with boobs.  Abercrombie paints Thorn well,  the insecurities and desperation as she seeks a validation through the battlefield and wonders if the prize was worth it.  As one character observes "there's no disappointment like getting what you want."

The boy, Brand, struck a resonant note with GRR Martin's work for me, in that Brand is the boy who wants to do good, who wants to do the right thing, to be more moral than his drunkard father.  And as Martin proved to so many of his characters, the moral high ground is a dangerous place to perch, making you all the more of an easy target for others to fire it.  Just as there were "consequences" that Martin imposed on a number of Starks, so too Yarvi tells Brand  "A man who gives all thought to doing good but no thought to the consequence... that is a dangerous man."

And what of Yarvi? We rode, or rowed a long path with him through Half-a King and I hope it is no spoiler to say he survived that ordeal.  However, it is curious to see so central a character through the eyes of others.  We know his past as Thorn and Brand do not, and we know the forces that shaped him. He is become the puppet master, the pragmatist, tugging at what strings he can reach with his half a hand.  Is he a good man?  Is he a bad man?  Neither really, he is the man he has to be, a man driven by need more than right or might and that dark motivation surfaces occasionally, breaking through placid waters with the menace of a shark's fin.

What of their story?  Well the tale is hung on political intrigue and diplomacy.  Just as the British Empire practised gunboat diplomacy, sending a warship up a river to settle a disagreement with overwhelming force, so Yarvi is driven at times to swordpoint diplomacy, sailing up and down rivers to win alliances against a threat to his beloved Gettland.  There are little adult hints at the economics of statecraft, the desire of the strong to subjugate the wealthy, to use military muscle to appropriate the riches of a well run state, power always envies gold. There are also a couple of passing references to the smelting of good steel, in honest descriptions that pleased the scientist in me without disturbing the story.

There are places where the hat tipping to young adult fiction seems a little more obvious than in others.  The trials and tribulations of adolescence, the insecurities, the mis-communications, the simple physical facts of growing up or out, all put in an appearance.  But their appearances drive the plot as Abercrombie entwines his story around the endless theme of implacable foes who do not realise they should be friends.

This book is not The Blade Itself, nor should it be, and those who would want Abercrombie to stay penned in one pocket of a genre do him a disservice. But the visceral battle scenes in Half the World made me at last see what others have long claimed for Abercrombie and the power of his battle writing.  And the fights in this book entrapped me more than in The Blade Itself, for this time I cared more about the characters, cared too much at times to dare to read on.

But then, I have a fondness for bad ass kick ass female heroines who find their every effort to do right seems to go wrong.  To be fair he had me from that opening scene of injustice on a  bloody beach by the Shattered Sea.  

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie - my (Spoiler Free) Review

Young Adult ? Grimdark? Straddling a divide, or falling between?

I have read just two of Lord Grimdark's books, his first and his latest published works.  I reviewed The Blade Itself (First Law) in a previous post and had already started Half a King and was looking for and seeing some differences in style and substance.  An author's books are like their children, indeed in some cases it would appear more precious than their offspring, and as with children one hesitates to draw direct comparisons between them.  However, no book can stand entirely separate from its context as authors strive to stretch the envelope of their achievement or to exorcise (or even exercise) some inner demons, and comparisons can cast a little light on literature.

The first thing I understood about Half a King was that Joe was setting out to explicitly write for the Young Adult audience, to extend his reach into another genre, to break free of the carapace of Lordgrimdark and maybe show a glimmer of Lordyoungadult. My first thought was that this book more straddled the two genres than broke wholly through from one to the other, and that is a good thing in that it can appeal to both audiences, rather than leave his many fantasy fans wailing in despair as he goes in pursuit of John Green's legions of admirers.

So what might make this Young Adult?  Well the first thing I noticed was the absence of swearing, not an f-word in sight (believe me I even did a kindle search to check) which is a big drop in the gritty darkness of the first-law peppered with a realistic use of coarse language (which even so fell someway short of the potty-mouths I have known at work, my own included).  But then while this is a difference between Joe's two books, it is not necessarily a key feature for distinguishing the genres.  Mazarkis Williams and Robin Hobb have both written glorious fantasy trilogies with not a single f---  between them, while many a YA book will be sprinkled with the versimilitudinous expletives of modern youth.

The second thing that might denote YA is the age of the protaganist. Yarvi is a boy, a teenager whose never been kissed, and there is in the midst of his many trials, a longing to see again the girl who kissed him first and promised him a better kiss when he returned.  And then against that promise he has the bright eyed young woman with whom he has established bonds deeper than love, bonds of life itself in a shared fight for survival.  That shifts this work away from the First Law where Logen was a hard bitten warrior with scars of life as well as war, and Bayaz was older than all of them.  Also, like many a young adult, Yarvi's thoughts and fate are bound up with his parents far more than the mature and cynical badass heroes of The Blade Itself.  He worries about his parents and he pines when he is parted, even though the approval he so yearned for from them has never been truly or freely given.  There are, therefore, those echoes of ordinary teenage angst, a fearfulness of what being an adult might involve and whether he is capable of it.  To be fair Mark Lawrence too had a teenage protaganist in a book which would indubitably be in the grimdark tradition if only someone would give an unequivocal definition of what grimdark is.  As teenage boys Jorg and Yarvi could not be more different, though Jorg too has debts he owes his parents which he fears cannot, or will not be paid.  In short, a youthful hero (or anti-hero) does not a young adult book make.

So this book stands not so much athwart the divide between YA and grimdark fantasy as rooted in its grimdark heritage but reaching out for a younger audience. But does that really matter?  What counts is whether or not it is a good story and labels are just that. J.K.Rowling showed how a good story can transcend the arbitrary type-setting of age.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "it's the story, stupid" and the story is the thing.

But what about the story?

So what of Yarvi's story and, setting aside the YA/grimdark division, how does it compare to Logen's and Glotka's?

Well there is a resonance of Glotka, in my view Joe's finest creation in the Blade Itself.  For Yarvi is a cripple and that fact dominates his every waking moment.  He was born with half a hand (well strictly speaking one and a half hands but you know what I mean) and this makes him unfit for war and unworthy of his father's love or approbation.  There is, more resignation than bitterness in how Yarvi deals with his deformity, but it sets out the story's stall at the outset.  This cannot be a Luke Skywalker tale of the farm boy who makes good and becomes the warrior god that makes others run in incontinent fear.  Yarvi's victories must be won by cunning and it is here perhaps more than in his YA ambitions that Joe most throws over the traces of traditional fantasy tropes.   Despite his many difficulties, Yarvi finds many subtle ways to control the ebbs and flows of his most troubled life, to show that the pen is mightier than the sword, that brain can move more than brawn can.

It is a good story with colourful characters and twists enough to surprise you and an ending entirely unlooked for but in keeping with Yarvi's character and journey.  Just as he is no typical hero, his triumph is no typical triumph. There is Joe's love of battle with combat described in fast paced detail.  At times the plot might have looked a little holey as impossible hardships were endured in a way that made me think Scott of the Antarctic was a bit of a wuss for giving in so easily. People die, as people do, sliding off swords with sorrowful; expressions, but you know enough about each one to care about the dreams they won't fulfill, or to rejoice at an overdue end so richly deserved.

So, is it Young Adult - not noticeably, but is it a good story - yes, and sufficiently different to its archetype to be worth pursuing into the sequels.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Pretty Little Dead Girls - my spoiler free review

There are books born of a single premise, a key idea.  Some find their ambition has overreached the grasp of their central theme, that the concept is incapable of sustaining the story and is either stretched too thin or bloated with a weight of distraction and fluff masquerading as subplots.  

Others find a perfect blend of imagination and style to take one sentence and turn it into a story you literally cannot put down;  "Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Novel of Murder and Whimsy" is such a book.

Its simple theme is that the central character Bryony Adams is doomed to die, but not in the sense that we are all making a journey from birth to death.  Bryony will die young and she will be murdered.  She knows it and everyone around her knows it, from her kindergarten teacher to the guitarist who looks into her eyes and runs away from the fate that awaits her.  The book is then about how do you live life, a life of short but indeterminate length in the shadow of such a fate, and how do those about you who care for you manage the burden of their own knowledge.

But more importantly than that, how do you write a story that has such a grim, albeit surealist spine to its tale.  

I have read many books that have death as a theme or even a character.  "The BookThief" by Marcus Zuzak and "Before I Die" by Jenny Downham and those works of John Green’s that I’ve read also have a certain commonality of more or less doomed central characters.  But there is a difference there.  To know you have a terminal disease, to be snatched unawares by some accident, to live in the shadow of war with Death your constant companion, these are more credible ends that are served by a more orthodox treatment.   But a story about living in the certain knowledge that your life will be taken by some as yet unknown murderer is, literally, incredible and it requires a special kind of style and skill to deliver such a tale.

Mercedes M. Yardley delivers through a light conversational narration that reminded me of the snippets of Lemony Snicket that I had read.  The omniscient narrator who delivers their tale with many an ooh and an ahh and a sharp intake of breath at the vicissitudes of life.  This is a narrator who does not so much tell you the story, or even read it to you, they stand over your shoulder and add a commentary as you devour Bryony Adams’ short bright life through the words on the page.  But whereas The Series of Unfortunate events had the palpable if multiply disguised figure of Count Olaf as its ever present villain, the growling hissing antagonist for Bryony Adams is fate itself, a fortune set at her birth that will not be denied.  Determination, the love of friends who want to buy her time in any way they can, and the spectacular inaccuracy of fate’s blunderbuss all combine to postpone what everybody in the book, including Bryony herself, has known is inevitable.  She can run, but she cannot hide, but my how she runs.

And for all the certainty laid out in its opening premise of a dark and unavoidable ending, this is a book that is joyful and life affirming.  What would any of us do in Bryony’s situation?  Seize what life offers? Fear for her friends who must be left behind to mourn.  Treasure each moment of now.

But, death stalks the book’s pages too, not just any death, but murder.  People die around Bryony Adams as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are loosed with devastating force but little precision.  There is no great titillation in each murderous act, merely a tiny detail here or there, a glimpse into each victim’s life or death that reaffirms the darkness of the shadow fate casts over Bryony, and by implication, over the many who love and care for her. The people who are determined to do all they can to give fate a damn good kicking and so buy Bryony whatever time they can.

There is a point in the book where one character reflects that he could cope with Bryony dying through some accident, through choosing just the wrong day to take up hangliding, or tripping and stumbling into a pit of rattlesnakes.  But it is the nature of her fate, rehearsed for us in advance by a variety of unfortunate victims of fortune’s inaccurate aim, which takes the theme of anticipated death and loss and gives it a sharp twist – well actually in a plot that wriggles as evasively as Bryony herself, it delivers quite a few heartstopping twists up to its long foretold heartstopping moment, and through those twists and turns the reader learns to love Bryony Adams just as much as the author did.

A book can be judged by many things and, incidentally, this book has an excellent cover. But like all art, a book is about interactions not absolutes.  Its quality is known, not by the mere words on the pages but by the response it engenders in the reader.  This is a book I read in just two sittings, its length, its pace and its story line sufficient to draw me in and on when sleep should have long since claimed me.  It is a book too, that left its mark on my mind, echoes of the story and the characters filling my thoughts the morning after so much so that I could not wait to try and capture some sense of the impression it had made through the medium of a review.  The last book to enthral me in the same way and linger on so powerfully after the last page was closed was “The Girl WithAll the Gifts” by M.R.Carey another enthralling heroine facing an impossible situation.

Why would anyone read such a book – a book haunted at every turn by murder and death, and again not just any murder but the vicious and sadistic theft of young women’s lives by a variety of persons unknown. And this is where Mercedes M Yardley strays beyond the reassuringly fantastic world of Lemony Snicket style writing and perches her tale right on the border of our own world, our real world, peopled by dark deeds and vulnerability.  The lyrical writing floats like a butterfly around dark realities of life and death and it is the style that saves both the story and the reader from engaging in a wholly macabre flirtation with darkness.

There may be others who will not warm to it as I did, who will not be swept along by its surrealist theme, its whimsical narration, or its captivating heroine.  There will be people who struggle to suspend their disbelief, or are uncomfortable with a book that flirts so lightly with murder and murderers.  But it is a unique story well told and I commend it.