Monday, 5 September 2016

Jo Walton: Among Others (2011)

Edition: Tor (2011)
Review number: 1502

Diary of a lonely teenager? Misfit at boarding school? Both form and setting of Among Others may seem to have been done until there is nothing new which could be extracted from the limp and tired ideas. Has Jo Walton managed it?

Morwenna (Mor) has run away from her mother's home in Wales, and sought her estranged father, who she has not seen since she was a baby. Her father's sisters promptly see her sent to Arlinghurst, a boarding school, one specialising in sports - not the most sympathetic environment for a teenage bookworm with a damaged foot. Mor has another thing which makes her different: all her life she has been able to see fairy spirits invisible to most, and believes her mother is a witch whose powers Mor has inherited (though she does not want to use these selfishly, as she feels that her mother does). It is interesting that the school is almost completely devoid of magic - she has to work at it through acts like burning letters from her mother - unlike the spirit filled world of the Welsh valleys she knew before.

Much of the novel is about the science fiction she reads, exhaustively, perceptively, precociously, and perhaps unbelievably. Most of what she says will perhaps mean little to those who haven't read everything from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny, or those who, like myself, don't share her likes and dislikes. I can really see this book being virtually unreadable if you don't at least know something about Samuel Delany and gender politics, John Brunner and dystopias, characterisation in Ursula Le Guin, world-building in J.R.R. Tolkien (just to mention a few of the recurring topics and authors). But at the same time this extended love letter to science fiction is surely one aspect of this novel which made it successful in both the Hugo and Nebula awards, joining the handful of genre classics which have won both.

At the same time, it is possible to read the novel as a magic realist work, where the magic seen by Mor is her own way of dealing with her life - an imaginative piece of private world-building. It is perhaps important if this is Walton's intention (whether it is or not only really becomes clear at the end). In some ways, the imaginary world view of the novel is more interesting, and gives a completely different significance to the diary, as an act of therapy.

How much you like Among Others will depend very much on how irritating you find Mor as central character, how much you understand and sympathise with her likes and dislikes in science fiction. I found her more annoying as I progressed through the book, and the dogmatic science fiction pronouncements seemed less interesting and more self indulgent on Walton's part. This is perhaps because Mor does not seem to change a great deal, which is surely a realistic portrayal of a teenager starting a new school, especially not one with a traumatic past. The dramatic events which led to her arrival at Arlinghurst are followed by...nothing much really. Making friends and enemies. Lots of reading science fiction. A bit of learning - her introduction to the works of T.S. Eliot is one of the more memorable moments of the novel.

While I can see why Among Others won awards, it feels to me that it did not really deserve to do so. The subject matter resonated with science fiction fandom, which explains why it won. But I would rate it lower because Mor was so annoying, and also because to me the ending was trite and unconvincing. My rating: 5/10.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Patricia A. McKillip: The Throme of the Erril of Sherill (1973)

Edition: Tempo, 1984
Review number:1501

Unusual, poetic fantasy - the first Patricia A. McKillip which I have read, after many recommendations of her as a fantasy author.

This edition also includes The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath, and is still extremely short as books go: it could fairly easily be read in a single sitting. Of that short length, the title story makes up about two thirds. It is the story of a quest undertaken to win the hand of a King's daughter - the very hackneyed theme of fairy stories. The story is intended for a young adult audience, and could quite easily be read to or by children, though I think it is likely that they would miss a lot of what is really going on. To an adult well read in fantasy, it reads like a cross between Jack Vance and William Morris, with a playfulness with language which may be influenced by  Jabberwocky or possibly comes more from Vance.

The language is perhaps the most obvious of The Throme of the Erril of Sherill's unusual qualities. Apart from the title of the story itself, there are made up words (a monstrous "borobel" could be straight from Lewis Carroll), and words which look almost right - perhaps versions from an alternate world where modern English developed slightly differently ("cnite" for knight, "Damsen" for the name of the princess - a damsel, and so on). This could be irritating, but I found it atmospheric.

But strange things also happen in the story itself. The cnite starts with the standard equipment of a knight - horse, sword, shield, armour - and as the quest goes on, he is forced to exchange these for magical items, the horse for a fire-breathing dog, and so on. The people he meets are rarely what you would expect on a quest - he does not slay monsters, rescue innocent maidens. At one point, there is an adventure which made me wonder if the whole story was not meant to be an allegory of aging and death.

The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath is apparently much more straightforward. A strange young man visits a strange island, where winter lasts twice as long as on the mainland, twenty miles away. He claims that this is due to a dragon, which he wishes to remove. This is an action with unforeseen consequences. Though told in a normal narrative form, it still seems that there is more to the story than is visible on the surface; the reader wants to invest it with a hidden meaning. For instance, is it about the unwisdom of making unwanted "improvements" to communities - doing away with tradition in the name of progress?

Altogether, two fascinating pieces of fantasy, well worth reading at any age. My rating: 9/10.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Michael Moorcock: The Whispering Swarm (2015)

Edition: Gollancz, 2015
Review number:1500

Are there any literary devices which have not been attempted in novels, by 2015? The Whispering Swarm certainly attempts one which I have never seen before. Many novels include autobiographical elements, but here Michael Moorcock mingles straight autobiographical material with historical fantasy. The autobiographical elements match my knowledge of Moorcock's life picked up as a fan of many years' standing; the fantasy elements centre round the mysterious Alsacia, a part of central London which acts as a refuge (this part is accurate, there was such an area which for historical reasons had the rules of sanctuary applied to it), and which can take those who find it to a semi-mythical London from the past.

Does the idea work? Basically, I don't think it does. There is clearly a desire on Moorcock's part to contrast the mundane real world and the glimpse beyond that in to fantasy, but this means that The Whispering Swarm feels like it is made up of distinct parts which could be pasted together sections from two different stories. It even feels as is though the prose style used changes, more matter of fact for the real world, more poetical and descriptive for the fantasy.

For most of Part One (the first third or so of the novel), Moorcock-as-character has either not yet discovered Alsatia, or is trying to ignore what he thinks might be a delusion. So the fantasy plays little part, and this left me as a reader wanting to skip forward to something more interesting. However, even when Alsatia plays a greater part, it too turns out to be fairly dull, and it is hard for the reader to invest in any of the characters, in either milieu.

The title refers to the noise Moorcock and a few others can sense, the combined voices of the inhabitants of this fantasy London. This is in itself an interesting concept, and would relate well to the themes of his best literary novel, Mother London. That is also about the mythic significance of London, and is much more successful, partly because it is a fully synthesised novel. The best urban fantasy evocations of London (such as those written by Neil Gaiman, Ben Aaronovitch, or Kate Griffin, among others) are also better at integrating the fantasy elements with a real world setting, and also possess a sense of humour which seems to have disappeared from Moorcock's recent work.

I have long been a fan of Michael Moorcock, since my early teens, but have found much of what he has written in the last decade unpalatable for one reason or another. Despite an interesting and unusual idea, The Whispering Storm also fails to impress me. My rating - 5/10.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Toby Litt: Journey Into Space (2009)

Edition: Penguin, 2009
Review number: 1499

Warning: this review is going to contain lots of spoilers, without which it would be hard to say what I want to say about it. Please don't read if you don't want to know the plot of the novel.

Toby Litt is, incidentally, someone I used to vaguely know (I had rooms on the floor below him for a year when we were students). Some of his novels I like a lot, and others not at all. Journey Into Space is the first of his books which I have read which comes between the two extremes. Or, rather, it moves from one to the other, as the story progresses.

Journey Into Space is divided into five sections, each shorter than the previous one, which gives an overall impression spiralling into a central point because of the way the plot develops across them, as well as because of influence the decreasing length has on the reading experience. The whole thing is set on that standard science fiction location, the generation ship on its way to colonise another world, inhabited by a very small community. (In-breeding, something which concerns some of the other writers of this type of stories, is simply handled by gene technology.) The plot covers four generations of life on the ship, not starting at the launch but several generations into the journey.

The first section is the most unusual in science fiction terms. It concerns the meetings between two teen-aged cousins, who share their ideas about Earth, a world they have never seen except in the records carried by the ship and messages received by it. The main way they do this is through "describing", where each tries to make the other feel what it would be like to experience something - rain, grass, the presence of animals - they have never known themselves. The theme here is nostalgia, and how we look at a past we can never actually see fully. This might feel like an extended creative writing exercise ("Produce 500 words describing grass from the point of view of someone who has never seen it in reality"), but it is effective at generating a mood which is shattered at the end of the section - Celeste gives birth a child (in a strange passage using a series of images derived from the describes, while the pair are shunned for their incestuous relationship.

In the second section, the child, named Orphan, takes over as the centre of the narrative. He charms his way into becoming the captain of the ship, despite not being terribly bright, and becomes regarded as something of a king and god. He institutes a perpetual, hedonistic party, where everything is done on his slightest whim (though he is manipulated into making decisions by others who have more interest in running the ship). This section seems to be a commentary on a different aspect of today's world, where we are living in the moment without a care for the traditions of the past or for the effects our way of life will have on generations to come. The main problem with this section is that Orphan, as depicted, does not convince the reader hat he has the charm he is credited with

The third section follows the life of Orphan's third child, imaginatively named Three, from spoilt child to ascetic obsessed with being able to write on paper in the old fashioned way, and centre of a new religion, proselytised by her nephew.  It is in this section that news reaches the ship that humanity on Earth has destroyed itself. In the final two sections, the nephew takes over the ship after Orphan and Three die; the ship then returns to earth, receiving a signal to indicate that there have been some survivors, before being deliberately crashed into the earth to obliterate defective humanity (leaving just two survivors, in an escape pod, who know that there is no way they can properly survive). This nihilistic section is much less clearly linked to commentary on twenty first century humanity. It seems perfunctory, and poses a fairly common conundrum - how does the narrative survive and who adds the final words describing the death of the last two humans orbiting earth? It may be that this ending is meant to provide some positive message of hope: somehow, some remnant of human civilisation has continued - but it isn't effective in this way for me, being swamped by the nihilistic theme of the book, which seems to be that the human race is better destroyed than allowed to continue.

The message of Journey Into Space (assuming I haven't just completely misinterpreted the novel, and there is one) is made so much the centre of the novel that other aspects of fiction writing suffer, especially characterisation - Celeste and Three are the only individuals given much in the way development. Apart from the descriptions which form part of the game between Celeste and August, there isn't much filling in of the background; like a lot of modern science fiction, Journey Into Space assumes that the reader will be familiar with the basic idea of a generation ship, for instance.

While there are some interesting ideas in Journey Into Space, parts of it simply don't work, and it generally feels under-developed. My rating: 5/10.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

John le Carré: A Delicate Truth (2013)

Edition: Viking, 2013
Review number: 1498

It's a while since I last read a John le Carré novel, and I picked this up in the local library a little reluctantly, because I felt that his world was often too downbeat for me to enjoy reading his work as much as I felt I should - very well written, provocative, but depressing.

A Delicate Truth is the story of the aftermath of a secret and rather shady operation, a collaboration between British military and a US security firm, organised outside normal security services procedures by an ambitious government minister. The operation is described in the first section of the novel, and the fallout from it returns to haunt some of those involved through the rest of the book. The main character is Toby Bell, who was the minister's private secretary at the time of the mission and was excluded in a manner which made him suspicious. The focus is on Bell's attempt to understand what has happened and to act in accordance with his conscience, not in the way which sustains the cover up.

The ideas of the novel are clearly inspired by the Wikileaks saga and the cases of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden. Several of le Carré's earlier novels, especially The Constant Gardener, The Mission Song, and A Most Wanted Man have done the same thing, but this is the first time where a UK setting has been used to give the novel more immediacy to what I would assume is the author's main audience, his compatriots.

Although the operation is not an official one, and the background is post-Cold War, I found A Delicate Truth reminiscent of le Carré's Smiley novels as a reading experience, more than it is of the recent works already mentioned. This is not the only reason; le Carré's spy fiction has often had matters of conscience and honour at its heart, and these themes play a large part here too. I did feel that this resemblance does make it clear that A Delicate Truth is overshadowed by the Smiley novels - not surprisingly: there is a reason why they are classics of the spy thriller genre.

A thoughtful novel, raising concerns about the actions taken against whistleblowers by those in authority. Though readable, it is a step down from le Carré at his peak. My rating: 7/10.

Friday, 17 April 2015

David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks (2014)

Edition: Sceptre, 2014
Review number: 1497

The Bone Clocks tells the story of the life of Holly Sykes, from her teenage years in Gravesend in the 1980s through to the mid twenty first century. This immediately makes it unusual: most novels are either fairly firmly set in a recognisable past (or more or less present) or in the future. Mitchell also combines, as in several of his other novels, fantasy elements with naturalistic and real world events, such as the war in Iraq.

This is a novel in which it is quite hard to work out what is going on, at least at first reading. Some things are clear: Holly has the second sight (though that term isn't used by Mitchell) and has visions of the future. There are characters who have access to something they call "the script", but their role in the story is not properly explained until near the end. These characters appear mysteriously at moments in the story when an important choice is to be made by one of the more reality bound characters.

The Bone Clocks is episodic in nature. There are lengthy gaps between the dates at which each is set, sometimes decades, and they are not all told from the same point of view. They do make the story a little bit harder to grasp, though the arrangement is not as complex as the structures of some of Mitchell's other novels (the episodes are presented in chronological order). Paradoxically, though, I found The Bone Clocks much harder to read than these earlier books. Each episode was individually interesting, but there is not really a sense of where things are leading to. A character is shared with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but that does not help make things clearer.

The resolution of the mystery of the script does make everything a lot clearer, but it is a very long time coming (I think this is Mitchell's longest novel by quite some way). Even though I am usually a big fan of the author, I felt that it didn't really prove worth the wait. If I had been new to Mitchell's work, I probably would never have gone on to read his other novels, and this would have been a pity. So I would suggest starting elsewhere and come to The Bone Clocks later, if you like Ghostwritten or number9dream. Even then, I feel that the books of Nick Harkaway or Haruki Murakimi are a better follow-up to Mitchell's early work than The Bone Clocks.

The "bone clocks" of the title are human bodies, referring to the ageing process. Ageing and time are the main themes of the novel, though it is also about how something magical can touch the most banal of lives - even someone growing up in Gravesend in the eighties.

Not Mitchell at his dazzling best - but still reasonably enjoyable and intersting. My rating: 7/10.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

Edition: Penguin, 2014
Review number: 1496

This is Mohsin Hamid's third novel, after The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I still think is the best novel to portray the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings, and his debut Moth Smoke, which I didn't like so much and now barely remember. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is, like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an attempt to bring attention to issues from a world that westerners tend not to think about much - this time the poverty stricken Asian communities where very rich and very poor often live almost side by side. It is much more similar, however, to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which has an almost identical theme.

Adiga's book, while noteworthy for the vigour of its protagonist, is a novel which is traditional in form. Hamid tries something different: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is told in the second person, as a self help manual, with a certain amount of amusing ironic deconstruction of what a self help book actually is (pointing out that if there is one self it is meant to help, it's the author who pockets the royalties, for instance). Each chapter follows the same format - a succinct title ("Move to the City", "Get an Education"), a short introductory paragraph about the nature of the help offered, and an instalment from the "your" story. I usually find second person narratives extremely irritating, but the self help conceit and the thought that has gone into the writing and its balance between the stark reality of life in "rising Asia" and humorous touches means that it actually works quite well.

There is very little in the novel to date the start and finish, though it covers sixty or more years, from young childhood to death, slightly unsettling in the second person. Hamid's nationality suggests that the location could be Pakistan, though he is careful not to be too specific (omitting mention of religion, for instance, or any politics beyond that of the city in which it is set) - it could be any number of places in Asia. A Pakistani background would also suggest that the novel describes a life from colonial independence to almost the present.

Returning to the comparison of Hamid's novel with Adiga's, I would say that The White Tiger is more profound, while How to Get Filthy Rich is more accessible. The same statement would still be true if The Reluctant Fundamentalist is substituted for The White Tiger. I enjoyed How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Hamid has something important to say (if not anything new), but I don't think it will stay with me in the same way as the other two novels have. My rating: 8/10.