Tuesday, 9 January 2018

A Poem for Every Day of the Year - 7th-9th January

My poem for the 7th is 'Dawn', by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, which essentially casts night and day as lovers who work opposite shifts. It begins by explaining how Day's happiest moments are at dawn, and ends with Night expiring for love of him. It's a fine metaphor as far as it goes, but creepy AF if taken just a hair too literally. Day, apparently, is a dick.

'Life' is one of the few verse works by the novelist Charlotte Bronte, a robust little number that thumbs the nose at adversity, reminding the reader that bad days lead to good things, and of the importance of not allowing life to get one down.

"Yet hope again elastic springs,
Unconquered, though she fell;
Still buoyant are her golden wings,
Still strong to bear us well."

It's a timely message, and probably always will be.

The last in this batch - I will make more of an effort to get on to daily posting once the Christmas backlog is cleared - is 'The Pulley', by the 17th Century poet and priest, George Herbert. This one is a devotional verse, explaining that God gave to man all the gifts in his possession except rest, because apparently God is a meanie and doesn't want to miss out on the credit. It's an overtly religious piece, the first one in the book, and its thesis - that weariness is something that humanity needs in order to thank God for their gifts instead of taking all for granted - isn't one that holds much water with me.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Reading Roundup - December 2017

Nothing else in the challenge this time, so I am officially converting the 2017 Challenge into an ongoing push to explore new (to me) literary territory that I shall call Found Horizons.

I did listen to La Belle Sauvage, the first part of The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman's new trilogy set in the universe of His Dark Materials (and, critically, in Lyra's world, which is probably the most interesting part of that universe.) It tells the story of young Malcolm, an innkeeper's son and aspiring scholar, his relationship with aleithiometrist Hannah Relf and his resulting involvement with an anti-Magisterium secret society known as Oakley Street, and his flight with his teenage frenemy Alice and the infant Lyra Belaqua along a flooded Thames Valley aboard his canoe La Belle Sauvage. At first navigating swiftly through ordinary terrain in flight from the charming, yet malevolent scholar Bonneville and his much-abused hyaena daemon, they gradually find the lines between the mystical and the mundane blurring, and the canoe carrying them along the dangerous borders of Faerie; or something like it.

A lot has been said of Pullman's fixation on pubescent psychosexual awakening, surprisingly little of it along the lines of 'that's what fairy tales are all about,' but take that aspect as you will(1) there is no ignoring the fact that his prose is far superior to the run of the mill. It is particularly noticeable because, this being something of an event release, they have got in an A-list reader in the form of critical theatrical and indie darling and mainstream rubbish monster actor Michael Sheen, whose delivery would not have shamed countryman Richard Burton(2). Matched with a pacy adventure, solid protagonists - although, as with His Dark Materials, our heroes are outshone by their antagonists, if nowhere else then in the scene where Malcolm witnesses Bonneville striking his own daemon and the narrative hits the reader with this as hard as the fact of it does Malcolm, who has a lifetime absorbing the implications of what such an action means(3) - and just a smidge of fanservice foreshadowing, this makes for an excellent read.

Speaking of that fanservice, this is the real balancing act of a prequel; to set up a familiar situation without being predictable. La Belle Sauvage succeeds in this, as while Lyra's future is known, and characters like Lord Asriel and not-yet-Fader Coram are guaranteed to survive, Malcolm and Alice's future is unwritten, and it is entirely possible that one or both of them might die to deliver the infant Lyra to safety, or that Hannah Relf might take a bullet for her young protégé, or any number of nuns die for their young charge.

Far more than just a prologue, however, La Belle Sauvage serves to dramatically expand Lyra's world, increasing the reader's understanding of daemons, and even more so of the Magisterium and the power that it wields. Coming back to my Found Horizons project, it's interesting to note that the League of St Alexander - an organisation which recruits children to act as Magisterial informants against their parents and teachers - may be reminiscent of the Inquisitorial Squad in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but having also read Wild Swans this year is terrifyingly plausible in its parallels to Mau's Red Guards.

La Belle Sauvage is not a lightweight read in any sense. The prose is dense and rich, the story straightforward, but layered, and the hardback makes Order of the Phoenix look like a newsstand pulp thriller. It definitely rewards effort and focus, however, in a way that more disposable fiction(4) can only envy.

In some ways - most notably that of technical prose construction - Magnus Chase and the Ship of the Dead, the final novel in the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard trilogy, falls far short of the standards set by La Belle Sauvage, but to focus on that would be to deny it its own virtues.

The Ship of the Dead follows on from The Hammer of Thor, with Magnus and his allies from Floor 19 of the Hotel Valhalla preparing to sail across mythical seas to prevent the launch of Njaglfar, the triumph of Loki, and the coming of Ragnarok. In a quest which leads to the halls of Aegir, the Shambles of York, the wilds of Alfheim and the frozen shores of Niflheim, the crew of the good ship Big Banana(5) uphold the great scavenger hunt tradition in search of a means for Magnus to defeat Loki in a flyting; a contest of insults(6).

Now, the most singular achievement of this book is that it realises the potential of the first transgender love interest in a mainstream early teen book, and by extension features what is at best a rare example of a bisexual teen hero, as Riordan establishes without fanfare or show that Magnus is into Alex Fierro both as a man and as a woman. In discussing the coming out of Nico di Angelo in the Percy Jackson series, Riordan explained that part of his reason for teaching and writing was to advocate for children who conventionally lack a voice in society, and he does so splendidly here(7).

In addition, Riordan once more weaves a rollocking adventure yarn from the yarn of myth, and gives bountiful screen time to the previously under-utilised veterans of Floor 19: Mallory Keane, Halfborn Gunderson and Thomas Jefferson Jr. The children of Loki - devout(8) Muslim Valkyrie Sam, and the persistently binomial Alex Fierro - are each in their own way a refreshing break from the norm that would do their estranged father proud if he were less of a dick. As for Magnus himself, since despite possession of the peerless blade Sumerbrandr(9), he essentially takes the role of healer girlfriend and self-confessed coward, which is pretty odd biscuits for a central hero protagonist. There's also something of Caiphas Cain in his self-deprecating narrative, which makes him much more likeable than in his first appearance; or maybe that's the better narration.

Finally, for the month - the last few weeks have been all family time - I went back to revisit Anthony Trollope's The Warden, part of a grand adaptation of the author's Barsetshire and political novels, all read by Timothy West. Now, I'll be honest, I could probably listen to West read the phone book and get a respectable distance into the Bs before it began to wear, and I've been a fan of Trollope's writing for years now, so this was likely to appeal to me. The slightest of the Barsetshire novels, The Warden tells the story of Mr Harding, a well-off and kindly cleric, who finds himself assailed by attacks in the popular press when the administration of the sinecure secured for him by his friends in the senior clergy is called into question by a dear friend. It is at once a rather cosy affair, with no real villains, and a satire of both the clergy of the time - while superficially very much in the corner of Mr Harding's high church, it is notable that the same characters who question what the beadsmen of St Hiram's could even do with £100 a year are aghast at the thought of Mr Harding supporting himself on less than £800 - and the popular press.

Politically it may not have a great deal to say in an era without clerical sinecures and livings, but it remains a warm and bright read (or listen), perfect for cold, wet commutes.

(1) For myself, the central relationship didn't feel particularly off or creepy, but like nearly all m/f romance or semi-romance relationships these days, felt like a waste of a more nuanced and unusual platonic pairing.
(2) The gold standard of voice performances.
(3) Having written fanfiction in which a character had significant conflict with their own daemon, which repulsed the young protagonist, I also felt a little smug at this point in the book.
(4) Newsstand pulps, more than Harry Potter.
(5) Because it is very, very yellow.
(6) Once more, props to Rick Riordan, because this is so totally a thing in Norse sagas.
(7) At least in as far as I, a cis het guy, can tell.
(8) For most of this novel she is fasting for Ramamdan and still taking names.

(9) Or Jack, for short.

A Poem for Every Day of the Year - January 1st-6th

One of my Christmas presents was a copy of a book called A Poem for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri. I've decided I will read a poem a day - two on Friday, two on Monday, since the book is living in the office - and comment on them here.

The first three poems are New Year themed. 'Promise', by the Scots Makar(1) Jackie Kay, is a toast to new year promises, whether kept or forgotten, likening the season to a blank sheet of paper or fresh fall of snow. 'Infant Joy' is William Blake's celebration of new life, probably only associated with new year by its current context. 'Poem for a New Year' by Matt Goodfellow, on the other hand, is obviously intended for this season, described through rural imagery of things revealed. These are three very different takes on the new year: One might call them respectively cynical, optimistic and awestruck at the possibilities of the unwritten future.

Far less anticipatory is 'Lines Written by a Bear of Very Little Brain'. Drawn from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, this rambling digression is a meditation on language, or else a nonsense verse with nothing so obvious as nonsense words. This was my birthday poem; make of that what you will.

Next is the end credits theme from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, aka 'the one about the wind and the rain.' It's described as a lively song, although since seeing it performed by the RSC a few years back I have looked on it as a rather dour and downbeat number. I suppose it depends what sort of mood you consider Feste to be in at the end of the play, but where we began the year with a series of beginnings, by the fifth we're talking about endings.

Finally, we come to 'The Three Kings', by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which is not a poem about George Clooney finding gold in the Second Gulf War, but a recounting of the story of the three Magi for epiphany. It’s a narrative poem, not long, but longer than the rest of this batch combined.

Back on Monday for the poems for the seventh and eighth.

(1) A sort of Scottish Poet Laureate, so if nothing else I've learned that.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Reading Roundup - November 2017

I kind of made progress on the challenge this month, completing the first of a newly-instated 'Russian SF' category with Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. It's a bleak look at a capitalist response to an utterly enigmatic alien visitation, from the perspective of writers living and working within the Soviet Union and its centrally controlled publishing industry.

Otherwise, November has been very much a month of Discworld, as I continued my re-reading of the Pratchett canon with books four to eight: Mort, Sourcery, Wyrd Sisters, Pyramids and Guards! Guards!.

Mort is the first novel in the Death strand of the series. Death has appeared in every book so far(1), but this is the first time he has been given a starring role, rather than popping up in a cameo, perhaps to confirm that someone didn't make it. It's the story of Mort - short for Mortimer - an awkward youth who becomes Death's apprentice, learning the trade and giving his master a chance to experience something of humanity. Published in the same year as Equal Rites(2), it rapidly established itself as the first 'gateway novel' in the series, frequently recommended as a starting point to the new reader. It mixes wit and whimsy with more serious themes - such as justice, faith and the complex relationship of a ruler's personal qualities and their competence as a ruler - with the deftness that leaves The Colour of Magic for dust. It has a likable, if not particularly deep, quartet of characters in Mort, Ysabelle - making a much more sympathetic showing than in her cameo in The Light Fantastic - Princess Keli(3) and Cutwell, with able support from the irascible and enigmatic domestic Albert, although the star is undeniably Death himself.

Stern and kind, wise and wondering, ancient and innocent, the Death of the Discworld is one of the great literary creations. With him, Pratchett turned the end of life from horror into comfort, and sought to explore and expand upon the many mysteries of life. THERE'S NO JUSTICE, Death often reminds us. THERE'S JUST ME. I think I could, pardon the phrase, live with that.

Death makes his next appearance right at the beginning of Sourcery, in which the failed wizard Rincewind is once more called upon to prevent Armageddon(4). This time, a wizard has broken the usual rules of celibacy with such enthusiasm as to produce eight children(5), the last being a Sourcerer, capable of creating magic, instead of merely shaping it. This is arguably Rincewind's finest hour, although his supporting cast are only so-so. Conina - the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian and a temple dancer he rescued from an unspecified fate - and wannabe barbarian hero Nijel the Destroyer are independently quite interesting characters, but are awkwardly paired off; awkward because one of them is described as a highly attractive, adult woman, then other as a gangly teenager apparently still in the throes of puberty.

I have literally no clue what is
going on with this cover.
Wyrd Sisters picks up the adventures of Granny Weatherwax(6) after Equal Rites, now a member of a three-witch coven in the mountain kingdom of Lancre, with long-time best friend/archnemesis Gytha 'Nanny' Ogg, and hippy dippy newcomer Magrat Garlick. The three of them are caught up in a coup d'état when they rescue a young baby, the rightful heir to the throne, from the usurping Duke Felmet and his terrible wife. Borrowing heavily from Macbeth - among other things - for plot and dialogue, and introducing a solid power trio in Granny - the serious one - Nanny - the motherly one - and Magrat - the nice one - and more pathetic fallacies than Jove could cast a thunderbolt at, this is the real beginning of the Witches stream, with Equal Rites a sort of precursor. It is interesting in retrospect that Magrat decides that witches only do kind things for selfish reasons, given that Tiffany Aching later determines that witches even do selfish things for kind reasons.

Pyramids, on the other hand, is a standalone, featuring the prince of a small, yet once great, kingdom - Djelebeybi - returning home after the death of his father and seeking to overturn the millennia of stagnant tradition upheld by the priests of the kingdom's many, many, many gods. While the story stands alone, and Djelebey
bi would never make another significant appearance, the novel also introduces Tsort and Ephebe, the equivalents of Troy and the Hellenic city states, whose millennia old feud is checked only by the intervening territory of Djelebeybi; at least until an oversized pyramid causes a complete collapse of space time and makes the kingdom disappear. This is also the first major appearance of the ongoing theme of belief shaping reality, as the collapse of the kingdom into a pocket of time causes the myriad conflicting deities of Djelebeybi to simultaneously manifest.

There is a lot to like in Pyramids, and I'm a sucker for a good bit of fantasy Egypt, but overall this is a bit of an also-ran. Pteppic is a fair lead, but deuteragonist/quasi-love interest Ptraci(7) is underdeveloped, and both pale next to Dios, a classic Pratchett villain, determined to do what he believes is the right thing for everybody, no matter how many people it hurts.

Finally, we come to Guards! Guards!, the start of the City Watch stream and, as it happens, the first Discworld novel I ever read. It introduces Sam Vimes and his 'boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness,' and the rest of the Watch: Sergeant Colon, Corporal Nobbs and new bug Lance-Constable Carrot. While it features a dragon, the novel is pitched primarily as a police procedural, of sorts, and as such is probably the first step on the road to the Disc's transformation from high fantasy to industrial spellpunk. It is also probaball of the characters are brilliant. Not the watch, not the villain, and neither the Patrician(8) nor dragon expert Lady Sybil Ramkin are throwaway or half-finished characters. Everyone is sharing the love, and it's brilliant.
ly the first Discworld novel in which

But it's not been all Discworld, and I finally managed to get through the rest of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The fifth book in the series is often held to be the weakest, but while I still feel that it is overlong and sags in places(9), it's definitely better than I remember; possibly because I didn't need to carry the hardback around to read it. It took a while to get through because of my intense dislike of Dolores Umbridge(10), the unacceptable face of the Ministry of Magic's slide towards a totalitarian cult of personality. I couldn't listen to anything with Umbridge in while I was going to sleep, which led to me favouring the Discworld novels all around. Much as I find the character uncomfortable, I acknowledge that the effect is intentional, serving to strip away the protected feeling which surrounds Hogwarts, and put the young leads well and truly on their own for the first time.

Of course, this all serves to highlight the frankly appalling level of pastoral care and gross favouritism in play at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry(11), even before Umbridge gets all up in it. It also exposes the deep corruption in the Ministry of Magic, and in many ways it's no wonder that a regime like Fudge's - broadly ineffectual, conciliatory, nepotistic, corrupt, and unduly tolerant of ultraconservative attitudes within society - would breed a far right revolution from those who simultaneously recognise the government's shortcomings, yet regard their centre right political leanings as insufferably liberal. While I joke about this, once more Rowling turns in an unmistakably political novel, with thinly veiled attacks on OFSTED, and the Hitler Youths of the Inquisitorial Squad. These are books to make children think, rather than simply to entertain them.

(1) And will appear in almost, if not every book hereafter.

(2) The first of six consecutive years to see a double Discworld event.
(3) Pronounced in the audiobook 'khey-lee' and not, as I had always assumed, Kelly.
(4) Or more accurately, the Apocralypse.
(5) Despite being a gold standard douchebag.
(6) Not that Granny would hold with adventures, most likely.
(7) Pronounced here 'puh-tra-chee', rather than as I would have thought, 'Tracy'.
(8) Making his first major appearance, after cameos in The Colour of Magic and Sourcery.
(9) It is no surprise that Rowling broke with her editors during the writing of the novel, as it is in need of some trimming just to tighten up the edges.
(10) Not least because of the utter chill factor of Stephen Fry's performance of her sickly-sweet voice.
(11) And that's another thing; are witchcraft and wizardry in any way distinct save in the gender of the caster? What would a non-binary magic user do?

2017 Reading Challenge - Roadside Picnic

I'm sad that the audio version omits the foreword.
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Reason for Reading: The film Stalker was recommended to me ages ago. I have a copy, but have never watched it, because it takes a special time slot to sit down and enjoy a subtitled movie without getting sidetracked. I've also owned the book for a while, but struggled somewhat to get into it. For whatever reason, I decided to take a pass at it on Audible (in a fairly high-profile edition, using a new translation and the Oscar-nominated Robert Forster as a reader.)

The novel is set in the years following an alien visit, which left a series of Zones around the world, filled with alien technology and weird, deadly effects. These Zones are studied by scientists, but also plundered by stalkers, thieves and smugglers who loot alien artefacts from the Zones for profit. The novel primarily follows the fortunes of Red Schuhart, a young stalker and sometime employee of the institute set up to study the Zone in Harmont, Canada. Caught between his criminal fraternity and family commitments, Red is pushed to make one last trip into the Zone, in search of the ultimate prize.

While written under the Soviet system and thus scathingly critical of Canada's capitalist response to the Zone, Roadside Picnic gives a grubby, roughhewn appeal to its flawed and broken characters. It's probably best characterised as SF noir, which is a sorely underrepresented field now that I think of it. It doesn't have much of a plot, or even arcs for its characters - Red begins by getting someone killed by trying to do someone a favour, then ends by getting someone killed trying to help himself and his family - but is more in the way of a short snapshot of the community who surround and exploit the Zone. Like a lot of noir, I find it appealing, but not deeply engaging, which coupled poorly with the largely unlikeable characters to make an interesting book with a lot of great ideas, but not a really gripping one.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Reading Roundup - October 2017

Zacharias Wythe was seen as a novelty by the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, a freed slave taught to perform magic, until he became the Sorcerer Royal. Now, he is beset by accusations of foul play, accused of the murder of his mentor and benefactor, and of doing away with the traditional familiar of his office. Worse, British magic is in an apparent state of terminal decline, the flow of power out of Faerie all but halted, a state of affairs for which his jealous rivals are quick to blame Zacharias. These problems are soon cast into the shade, however, as he becomes reluctant mentor to Prunella Gentleman, a magicien of unusual - the Royal Society would say improper - proficiency and peerless stubbornness.

Sorcerer to the Crown is a Regency-set novel of gentleman magicians, written by a Malaysian woman and featuring as its protagonists a black former slave and a half-Indian girl of questionable birth, which immediately marks it out from the crowd. It has an inventive approach to magic and a pair of sympathetic, if not exactly likeable leads to compete with a set of sneering, elitist antagonists. Also Malaysian lamiae in a diplomatic subplot which sets Zacharias firmly at odds with the Government. It's a book with substantial strengths, but not without flaws, including a tendency for Prunella to tip over from wilful rebel to gold digger to some sort of bloodthirsty egomaniac(1), and a weak romantic thread.

In truth, I would probably have enjoyed it more if it had not been so enthusiastically recommended, but while it may be all that, it falls short of the accompanying bag of chips.

Next up is Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone, which is as you might expect, a parody of Sherlock Holmes with magic in it. Dr John Watson, a half-pay army surgeon with a keen observational and deductive mind, is forced by circumstances to take rooms with the eccentric Warlock Holmes, whom he eventually learns is a form of consulting detective, an occult powerhouse of limited brain, periodically possessed by the spirit of his defeated foe Moriarty.

Through a series of short stories spoofing different Holmes adventures, Warlock Holmes strikes a rich vein of humour in pairing off Watson's deductive genius - very like that of Sherlock - against the totally illogical world into which association with Holmes and his Scotland Yard associates - vampire Lestrade and... ill-defined man-thing Gregson - thrusts him. Somewhat less successful are the more absurdist elements - the cause of the revenger's crusade in the title story is the consumption of a doughnut - and the occasional interjection of unrelated parody - such as references to 'Nexus 7' magical automata.

All in all, it's a less substantial read than Sorcerer to the Crown, itself a fairly light novel as these things go. It isn't the better book, and in its adherence to the form of the originals coupled with a slightly blokish line in geek humour has a woeful shortage of strong, female or minority characters - unless we count werewolves and vampires as minorities, which in Denning's defence, he kind of does - but in the short term is possibly more fun, if only because we aren't expected to like and admire the characters.

Ghosts are making their presence felt on the London Underground... and then shattering in a most improbable way. Police officer and apprentice wizard Peter Grant is on the case, ably assisted by Sgt Jaget Khan, British Transport Police's own resident whipping boy of the weird, Peter's occult-hacking cousin Abigail, and Toby, the increasingly reluctant ghost-sniffing dog. It soon becomes clear that someone is using ghosts to send a message. Someone is in trouble, and someone wants to help, but who? and how? and why can't they just use email?

We're probably at least another year from the next full Peter Grant release, but in the meantime there's The Furthest Station, advertised somewhat disingenuously as 'the first Peter Grant novella', in an attempt to make a half-novel seem more exciting than a full release. In fairness, this is a pretty exciting release. Like Body Work, the first of the Rivers of London comics(2), the trimming of subplots and removal from the arc narrative of the series results in a simpler, but punchier storyline. The blending of mundane crime with occult crimesolving is an interesting twist, it adds a new feature - British-to-American explanatory notes framed as footnotes for the benefit of the FBI's occult pointwoman, Agent Reynolds(3) - and lest anyone worry that the narrative has become too simplistic, there is a little digression in which Peter makes first contact with a neophyte river god. It's not a full novel, but it's a satisfying addition to the Rivers of London canon.

This month saw me finish up the Audible's Definitive Sherlock Holmes, read by Stephen Fry. Alas, it is the nature of the beast that any Holmes collection read straight through leaves the most underwhelming for last. His Last Bow includes such notable takes as 'The Adventure of the Cardboard Box', 'The Adventure of the Dying Detyective' and 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot', but is more notable for its elaborate, often grotesque, scenarios than for the quality of its Holmesing. Many of the stories borrow heavily from earlier offerings - 'The Adventure of the Red Circle' has much in common with 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men', including mob connections and secret codes, while 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax' borrows The Hound of the Baskervilles device of Holmes purporting to send Watson as his proxy while following in disguise, and like 'The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton' includes Holmes affecting a singularly inelegant - not to say illegal - solution to a problem that resists pure deduction.

And then there is the title story: 'His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes' sees the great detective called out of bucolic retirement to engage in intelligence work at the dawn of World War I. It's not remotely his forte, and honestly he's a poor spy. For reasons of maintaining tension, it is also told in the third person, which makes for a weird deviation from the established norm.

The same criticisms and more can be applied to The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. This last collection of stories is heavily derivative, most notably in 'The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone'. A reworking of a stage play based on elements of earlier stories, including 'The Empty House', it is told in the third person, and introduces the character of Billy the page, one of a number of informers to appear for the first time in this collection, each referenced as if they were long time regulars. Holmes's expanded network is actually an interesting twist, and it's a shame only to see it here instead of being given a less sudden introduction throughout the canon.

Other oddities include 'The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier' and 'The Adventure of the Lion's Mane', both narrated in the first person by Holmes himself. Sadly, Doyle was not able to create a truly distinct narrative voice for Holmes, and I occasionally found myself surprised that it wasn't Watson narrating. For my money, a truly definitive collection should have flown Hugh Laurie in to be Holmes. 'The Three Garridebs' is a retread of the 'Red-Headed League', and while 'The Sussex Vampire' flirts with the Gothic, 'The Creeping Man' pitches us into science fictional grotesquery with a man transformed into a kind of lycanthrope by injections of monkey glands.

The Josh Kirby cover era. Note Twoflower, depicted with four
eyes, instead of glasses.
All told, His Last Bow and Case-Book are a disappointing conclusion to the canon, and a vindication of the author's belief that he maybe should have left his most famous creation dead. That may sound a little harsh, but these last two collections definitely smack of something written more to make the mortgage than because Doyle had a head full of great ideas.

I'm still running slow on Order of the Phoenix, but I've made a good start on a re-reading/listening to of the Discworld stories of Terry Pratchett, beginning at the very beginning with The Colour of Magic.

The Colour of Magic is a bit of an oddity in the series. It is, as Tolkien might have said, merely an essay in the craft, consisting of a series of loosely connected short parodies: 'The Colour of Magic', 'The Sending of Eight', 'The Lure of the Wyrm' and 'Close to the Edge'. The narrative follows Twoflower, the Disc's first tourist, and his reluctant guide, the failed wizard Rincewind, from the twin cities of Ankh-Morpork, out into the wider Disc(4). 'The Colour of Magic' is a parody of the grubby, street-fantasy of Fritz Lieber, in which Twoflower introduces fire insurance to the venal citizens of the Circle Sea's greatest city and thus inevitably brings about its latest incineration. 'The Sending of Eight' takes our heroes - if you will - into the wilds for a clash between barbarian swordsmen and an ancient, elder god, rather in the vein of Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian. 'The Lure of the Wyrm' takes a poke at Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and features one of the only female characters in the series to legitimately dress like a Boris Valejo cover, while 'Close to the Edge' is a more generic parody and revolves more around the specific nature of the Disc.

Within the text, Harenna the Henna-Haired
Harridan is explicitly described as not dressing
the way she is drawn on the cover.
It is this last part that segues directly into the first 'true' Discworld novel, The Light Fantastic, in which Rincewind and Twoflower are returned to the Disc in order to return a critical piece of magic to the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork. It introduces the wizards who will come to play a major part in future novels - albeit in a form that is substantially less 'weird, occult hierarchy' and more 'weird, academic hierarchy' than we see here, and not yet including any recurring characters besides Rincewind and the Librarian - features the transformation of the University's Librarian into an orangutan - in a scene so brief that many readers, myself included, assume that the accident was just backstory for a long time - and hints at the future 'phasing out' of the Disc's barbarian hero workforce with the figure of the ancient-yet-spry Cohen the Barbarian, greatest and oldest hero in the world, whose acquisitive desires are now more focused on hot baths and back liniment than on gold and precious jewels.

The Light Fantastic is also the first of many Discworld novels in which the Disc faces total annihilation, in this case from the near-fatal interruption of Great A'Tuin's spawning cycle by arrogant, power-hungry wizards.

The general theme that ninety percent of wizards are, at best, useless and, at worst, a liability, is continued in the last of this month's Discworld novels: Equal Rites. Arguably the first of Pratchett's political novels, rather than examining and parodying fantasy tropes in themselves, it uses those fantasy tropes and their parodies as a lens to examine a contemporary issue, in this case that of gender roles. It also introduces the woman who is, again arguably, the most iconic of all Discworld characters, Granny Esmerelda Weatherwax.

Again, it's made explicit that Granny deplores her lack of
suitably cronish features.
Equal Rites follows Eskarina Smith, the first daughter and eighth child of an eighth child, who thanks to a mix up with a piece of prognostication inherits the staff and powers of a dying wizard, which would normally be reserved for a child with a Y-chromosome. Surprisingly little of the actual narrative involves the jaded institution of the Unseen University gatekeeping wizardry against Esk. Instead, the focus is more on a more general perception of the limit, beginning with Granny Weatherwax, who has some very set ideas about gender roles... just as long as some long-bearded fool isn't trying to tell her what they ought to be.

If The Colour of Magic is an oddity, The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites kick off two of the major subseries in the Discworld canon - the Rincewind series, and the Witches. While the first may be a bit of a test case, the others are surprisingly strong for early works and already show the potential of the Discworld to assume the influential position it now holds in modern culture. They also remind me how much I miss having Terry in the world and new Discworld novels to look forward to(6).

Finally, I read the dead tree edition of Liz Braswell's As Old as Time. This is the third in Disney's Twisted Tales series, but they aren't linked and I like Beauty and the Beast, so I started here. The Twisted Tales are what if stories which reimagine classic Disney tales with, unsurprisingly, a twist. What if Aladdin never found the lamp?(7) What if Sleeping Beauty never woke up?(8) What if Ariel wasn't a self-absorbed pill?(9) And in this instance, what if the Enchantress who cursed the Beast was Belle's mother.

The book begins with a fairly straight reiteration of the opening of Beauty and the Beast, with Gaston pursuing Belle and culminating in the ambush wedding, but interleaved with the courtship of Maurice the inventor and the enchantress Rosalind in a small kingdom where magical beings live alongside normal humans. As the two fall in love and marry, les normales begin to persecute les charmants, and magical individuals begin to disappear. At last, Belle's mother curses the prince in punishment for his parents' tacit support for the pogroms, but is then abducted and held in a terrible prison. Because of their connection, Belle triggers an intensifying of the curse, nearly trapping her and the Beast in the castle, before they return to discover that les charmants were being held captive in the very asylum to which Gaston seeks to condemn Maurice.

This is probably the first Beauty and the Beast story to name drop the Necronomicon, and if nothing else provides an explanation for the bookseller in the animated film(10), as well as offering the same explanation for some of the inconsistencies as the new film (a memory charm.) Belle is reasonably convincing as a conflicted adolescent - she likes books, yearns for adventure, but a part of her still would like to have friends, and as much as his coarser qualities repel her, she is aware that Gaston is a looker - and the Beast's curse draws much more on an emergent animal nature than the mere physical transformation.

It's been a somewhat surprisingly fruitful month, which is nice to see. It's been fun getting back to Pratchett, and I've found some new authors to enjoy as well. It was definitely a stronger field than last month.

(1) Honestly, this would have bothered me less if the overall impression had not been that we were supposed to find her in all ways charming.
(2) And presumably the others, but I haven't read those for budget reasons.
(3) I do love the fact that, as the story progresses, more and more agencies are appointing those caught up in Grant's investigations to carry the can on the cases they'd rather not acknowledge more than is absolutely necessary.
(4) It's telling of the influence of the series that I feel not the slightest need to explain that the Discworld is a flat world, riding on the backs of four giant elephants turning circles on the shell of the star turtle Great A'Tuin(5).
(5) Apparently my geek level lies somewhere between being able to spell A'Tuin from memory (having only heard it on this run through,) and knowing offhand what the elephants are called.
(6) On this run-through, I will be finishing up with Making Money and Raising Steam, the last two that I haven't read yet, as well as revisiting some of the more recent ones - and Jingo - for the first time since the first time.
(7) A Whole New World.
(8) Once Upon a Dream.
(9) Okay, I made this one up. 
(10) He is a charmant watching over Belle and her father.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Reading Roundup - September 2017

Another month goes by with no progress on the 2017 Challenge. This time, it's basically because I've thrown my back out and can't afford to carry a large dead-tree volume to and from work. I've therefore invested in the first volume of the 'Emancipation' theme on Audible, so watch this space for my take on the suddenly much-discussed(1) The Handmaid's Tale.

Kalinda - Kali for short - is a trainee at warrior nun school, and thus destined to become a warrior nun unless she is claimed by one of the benefactors as a wife, courtesan or servant. She is tall and gawky in a culture of petite curves, so of course she is claimed by the Rajah to be his hundredth wife, thus elevating him to near-godly megastud status... but only after she has faced challenges from any of his roughly nine squintillion concubines who seek to claim her place. This is not a fate she would have chosen even if the Rajah wasn't a drunken douchebag, which he is, and even if her appointed bodyguard wasn't the fantasy Indian equivalent of Jet Li in The Bodyguard from Beijing(2), which he is, and who sees beauty in the form she considers gangly and awkward, which he does. Unfortunately, that is the fate she's got, and now she will have to find the holy book of an outlawed sect of magic ninjas, survive her 'rank tournament', marry the Rajah and murder him, all without getting the gorgeous Deven Nyk(3) murdered by succumbing to the gravitational attraction of dem eyes.

The Hundredth Queen - or, to give it its alternative title, The Several Hundredth Fantasy Novel About a Special Snowflake With a Destiny and a Dreamy-Eyed True Love - is... Okay, actually it's not as awful as I'm making out, but it is so very much of a type that it is not merely easy to mock, but almost impossible to take seriously. Of its ilk, it is not terrible, and it has some gorgeous imagery, but it's just so rote. Magical powers, secret relations, dreamy love interest, utterly diabolical villains. There are a few twists towards the end, as the massively oppressed magical ninjas turn out to be so over peaceful co-existence, but for the most part its all par for the course, and there's a point in the middle where our star-crossed lovers are contemplating their prospects and I just wanted to slap them both for their utter egocentrism. Deven not only declares that he can find the thing the Bhutas(4) have been searching for for years because his love for Kali is more motivation than the impending extermination of their entire race and potential release of a world-consuming evil super ninja, but turns out to be right, only for their ill-conceived plan and Kali's hare-brained rescue attempt to get Kali's best friend killed and Deven lost down a river. And do either of them ever admit that this happened because they were reckless, foolhardy and selfish? Do they bollocks.

Like The Wretched of Muirwood, there is a disconnect between the espoused values of the world and the actions of the characters. Sisterhood is promoted strongly, but while she does act in support of the other women of the royal harem on many occasions, she is also willing to skip out on any chance of affecting real change to live her sexy dream life with Deven (who, incidentally, is literally the first man she ever sees.) King paints a world in which nothing is supposed to come easily, but only a handful of characters in the book actually seem to understand the concept of sacrifice and most of those get pretty short shrift from Kali in her role as narrator.

I will say this for the book; the rampant sexism of its culture was more than an assumption. While we open with a world where women are basically chattels, it emerges throughout the book that this was not always the case. Women once held significant power, before the Rajahs and other wealthy (male) benefactors were able to promote the once-outlawed rank tournaments as a means of making women battle each other for favour. It makes a change from just imposing historical chauvinism on a world where people can set each other on fire with their minds.

A terrible conflagration forces a group of cleaners and maintenance workers to flee from the London Underground, through a door into another world. Mary is a juvenile delinquent with an iron will. Daleep is a nice Sikh boy with a formerly bright future in engineering. They, along with Bosnian track worker Stanislav, shift mum Mama, and three other cleaners find themselves in Down, not just a direction, but a destination, a seemingly unspoiled wilderness where geomancers tap into powerful energies flowing between the portals to London.

The group soon find themselves at the mercy of these competing magicians, but Dalip and Mary each find a peculiar strength in Down, Mary becoming a geomancer herself, and Dalip discovering a warrior spirit which seems to reshape his body into fighting trim. It seems that Down is a place to find yourself, although some find worse selves than others.

Down Station is hands down the best book I've read/listened to in September, coupling interesting and flawed characters with a novel and compelling form of secondary world; a sort of emergency Narnia which takes people in mortal peril out of London, but never sends them back. The reversal of expectations in making the cerebral Dalip into a fighter and natural-born scrapper Mary into the magician makes both characters more compelling, and their interactions with their various allies - especially the desperately broken Stanislav - at least as intriguing as the battle with the Geomancer and her guards. It's also notable that the book quietly eschews the standard assumption of white leads, with Mary being mixed-race and Dalip a Sikh, and their allies mostly black or Eastern European. The second book of the series, The White City, is definitely higher on my to-read list than The Fire Queen.

In fact, with The Hundredth Queen being set in fantasy India, that means that Architects of Destiny and Veil of Reality, the first two volumes of the scifi epic Cadicle feature my only white protagonists of the month. Well, and Harry Potter, but I haven't finished The Order of the Phoenix because I find it so hard to go to sleep while listening to any scene in which Dolores Umbridge is present and not being savaged to death by weasels.

The Tararian Empire is a vast, interstellar dominion, ruled by the corporate nobility of the High Dynasties and mediated by a no-longer-religious Priesthood. Christoph Seitinen is the heir to one of the Dynasties, and was born with telepathic powers that he refuses - against all policy - to deny. Indeed, his powers are substantially greater than those of most telepaths. And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach...'s dad.

After running away from home, Chris is located by the Tararian Selective Service, a sort of general purpose agency responsible for getting shit done in the Empire, and permitted to train its agents to use their telepathic powers. While in training, Chris meets a girl and they fall in love at first sight, despite her turning out to be a Dynastic scion as well. We later learn that this is because they were genetically programmed to be super hot for one another, but they don't find that out until book two. In fact... very little happens in Architects of Destiny. Chris runs away from home, gets a job on a freighter, eats street food, gets picked up by the TSS, has a training montage, then gets married.

Veil of Reality picks up fourteen years later, implying that the entire first book was a bit of a digression and that we're really interested in the future Primus Elite/Cadicle/Dragon, Will Seitinen. Chris and Kate's son is a prodigy, with vast intelligence and psychic welly. He is kidnapped by the Baksen, an alien force at double-secret war with the Tarans, who torment him with loaded hints about the real plot and apparently want him to join their team. Chris undertakes a rescue mission while Kate hunts a traitor in the TSS, and as a result all the stuff about generations of Dynastic scions being programmed to ultimately create Will in order to counter the telepathic threat of the Baksen comes out (although not the secret of the Baksen's origins; I'm calling early attempts to genetically engineer a psychic super-race, but they were unstable/too powerful/slightly off-putting with their rough skin and red eyes and got mad when the Priesthood tried to scrap them.)

I've got the third book in the same omnibus as the first two, so I guess I'll give it a go sometime, but I can't say I care that much. The absolute focus on the wealthy elite and the shady super-agency is especially egregious for having gone out of the way to introduce the idea that the populace thinks that the system of rule really sucks. The complete absence of ordinary folks from the narrative is all the more striking for the fact that the Seitinens are described as blonde haired and blue eyed, as a result of their generational drive for genetic purity. In addition, there are no strong female characters at all, with Kate's informed brilliance doing her no good at all when called on to track down the traitor responsible for trying to kill her son.

Not a great month then, apart from Down Station. Roll on October(5).

(1) And hardly irrelevant before.
(2) Or Kevin Costner, or I suppose Ryan Reynolds.
(3) As always, spellings may be off-base since I listen instead of reading.
(4) The magic ninjas.
(5) Oh, it already did.