Friday, 12 June 2009

Books 12 June 2009

A quick set of mini-reviews for some books I've read recently...

The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson 4 / 5

Enjoyed this a lot - might not be for you if you're squeamish though. An ordinary story - boy meets girl. However, here the boy is nearly dead, horribly burnt & disfigured following a car crash which rather curtails his career as an drug-addled adult film star. The girl, meanwhile, is a fey and mysterious stone carver who claims to be seven hundred years old...

Davidson does a great job of weaving a convincing & engaging story with real depth to the relationship between the two - backed up by enjoyably imaginative storytelling and a veneer of the fantastical.

There are definite flaws to this book - the author heavily researched historical background for the story, and sometimes the depth of historical verisimilitude jars with the narrative. It's not a happy book either - and I wasn't sure the ending really worked for me.

None the less, I enjoyed it a lot and it made quite an impact on me - the kind of novel I imagine I'll return to for second or third readings and find more in it each time. Considering it's a début from Davidson, pretty impressive!

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss 5 / 5

Another début novel, happily even better this one. Grabbed in some haste - I was in Solihull and needed something to read, and this was on the "Employee's Picks" section in the Borders there. They have great taste!

In "The Name of the Wind", Rothfuss (He blogs!) has done a great job of blending the exuberant and exciting elements of fantasy with some gritty realism. A more grim and gloomy tone is not unknown in fantasy, particularly in recent years, but for me this one gets the balance just about perfect - whilst creating a convincing world and characters, there's still a real element of wonder and enchantment.

This book tells the story of Kvothe, born into a troupe of roving stage performers and minstrels, who clearly from the book's context goes on to become a famous - or, perhaps, notorious - hero, swordsman and magician. Much of this is still to come though, as this is the first of a trilogy. By the end of this volume Kvothe has suffered tragedy, met with both adventure and romance, and shown his potential for the arcane - so there's certainly lots happening. None the less, there's a lingering feeling that things will really get going in the next book!

This book isn't perfect - at times Kvothe does verge on the wish-fulfilling 'Mary-Sue' of legend - but it's without doubt the best fantasy I've read in the past couple of years. If you like fantasy - particularly of the 'epic' sub-genre - then I can't recommend this enough.

The Last Colony, John Scalzi 3 / 5

I'm a long-time reader of John's blog, Whatever, but have tended to only pick up his novels as & when I find them over here in the UK - which hasn't always been often. So I was happy to find a copy of 'The Last Colony' the other week.

This third book is a sequel to Scalzi's previous 'Old Man's War' and 'The Ghost Brigades' and continues the story of John Perry, the septuagenarian soldier fighting humankind's battles on faraway planets. Although not carrying on immediate plot arcs, the book does rely heavily on the earlier two and I would suggest you catch up on those first.

In 'The Last Colony', Perry agrees to lead a new colony settling on a new world. Unfortunately for him, in this universe there are many alien races who object to humans grabbing all the prime real estate. And they're the easier part of Perry's problems, as he also has to contend with his own government.

Above all this is a fun book, which I rattled through reading with great excitement. This is wholly in keeping with the previous books and, indeed, reminds me of early Heinlein works that Scalzi has openly acknowleged as an inspiration. The narrative is warm, witty and rapidly paced.

However, I was a bit disappointed at the lack of depth and detail I found. I'm not sure this would bother everyone, but to a certain degree I felt that the broad outlines of a world were being painted, but there wasn't anything to back them up or develop a real depth of connection with characters.

So whilst I finished the book at breakneck pace, and thoroughly enjoyed it in the process, I can't really say it made much of a lasting impact on me. I'll still look out for Scalzi's books when I see them - but I'm not going to be ordering them in hardcover...

Night of Knives, Ian C Esslemont 3 / 5

I am a huge fan of Steven Erikson's 'Malazan Book of the Fallen' series, so I was curious to see what this new novel, set in the same world but from a different author, would be like. Ian and Steven did develop the Malazan world together from the outset and describe it as a wholly collaborative endeavour, so this book shouldn't be seen as any sort of spin-off or exploitation!

'Night of Knives' is a fast-paced action novel, and does that extremely well. The characters are what they need to be, there are plenty of fights, chases, battles of magic, strange trips between worlds... You get the idea - there's a lot going on. Esslemont has done a great job of plotting and weaving a coherent narrative to describe one very chaotic night.

I realise it's not fair to compare the two authors, but based on this book I remain unconvinced that Esslemont can bring the same balance of action and feeling that Erikson manages - part of the appeal the 'Book of the Fallen' series has to me is that it conveys the full range of human emotion, from joy to despair to rage to desperate sorrow. And Erikson surely doesn't have any problem writing big, dramatic battle sequences either.

As I say, it's harsh on Esslemont to judge his first novel by such high standards - in my book it's a fine first novel. There is a second one - 'Return of the Crimson Guard' - out now, and I plan to check that out soon. So definitely not a bad book - just has a lot to live up to!

The Gone-away World, Nick Harkaway 5 / 5

Yet another first novel, this one from - I discovered after finishing it - the son of the great author of spy fiction, John Le Carre. Also a really excellent book - I literally finished it two or three hours ago and am still buzzing a little with excitement!

Unlike the other books in this post, 'The Gone-away World' is written in an overtly comical and stream-of-conciousness style which at times seemed to be channeling a potent mix of Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams and even maybe Jerome K Jerome. The plot also has its absurd moments, featuring as it does pirates, ninjas, and the most unlikely romantic assignation I have ever read.

Using this style is interesting, to say the least, given that the book is about the end of the world - in a way - and addresses head-on some deep and uncomfortable questions about love, war, corporate culture and philosophy. I won't give away any plot points, but there are also big surprises towards the end, spun in by the author in quite elegant fashion.

Again, there are a few problems - although the comedic style works most of the time, it sometimes meets its limits and crosses the line into farce. Although I enjoy complex and flowery language, Harkaway takes it a bit too far here on occasion and would maybe have benefitted from some further editing. I notice he credits Dumas in the endnote and indeed, the verbosity is reminiscent of something like 'Le Comte de Monte Cristo'.

Summing up, however, 'The Gone-away' world is a cracking read with lots of action, a sizzling plot, good characters and an innovative way of telling a story. Highly recommended!

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