Thursday, 14 June 2018

Reading Roundup - May 2018

This month's reading begins with The Night Alphabet, a collection of twenty-six short stories - arranged into an alphabet of themes - loosely bound by a common source in dreamed inspiration. There's a broad range of works on offer here, from the Gaimanesque whimsy of 'Mr Martello and the Cloud Castle' to the Lovecraftian horror of 'Solomon's Gate' or 'The Gap', to more distinctly unique chapters such as 'The Cherry Tree' and 'The Sandwich Thief'. The bad news is that this means that few readers will get on with every story in the book, but the good news is that is that - unlike with, say, Lovecraft himself, who can get a little samey - there is no danger of tedium setting in, and that there is something for most palates within.

Generically, the book is broadly described as horror, although 'dark fantasy' is probably more apt, with only a few of the stories slipping into full-blown chiller mode. Some of the stories are very short, others a little bit longer. The writing is strong throughout, even in the simplest works, with characters efficiently drawn so as to quickly engage the reader's sympathies. 

Next up was a repeat of an old favourite, as I kicked off a re-read of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with The Fellowship of the Ring, and the thing that really strikes me... Well, it may seem odd, but I really hadn't considered before how odd it is that the Shire has a postal service. The single greatest kingdom in the known world exchanges diplomatic communiques with its client states by sending a man on a horse with a red arrow, and the bucolic, forgotten pastoral has stamps. Also, having made an informed decision to not skip the Old Forest this time around, damn I'd forgotten how weird and creepy Tom Bombadil (Tom Bombadillo) actually is. I mean, everyone remembers that his whole episode is random as hell - Peter Jackson memorably replaced his entire impact on the wider plot(1) with a bag - but as much as I don't think it was Tolkien's intention, having Goldberry begin and end her explanation of who Tom Bombadil is with the phrase 'Tom is the master' is pretty fucking cult programming.

It's amazing how much re-visiting a familiar text allows you to focus in on the small details, is what I'm saying.

The book begins with the famous foreword in which Tolkien discourses on his mortal horror of allegory, before proceeding to 'Concerning Hobbits,' a rambling history of the 'little people,' which I usually skim, and hoo-boy is there a lot that I didn't remember. The bulk of the story - from Hobbiton to Rauros, by way of the bloody Old Forest, of Bree and Weathertop and Rivendell, Caradhras and Moria, Lothlorien and the Anduin - I remember much better, probably because it gets much more love in adaptation(2). It quite surprised me, however, that I left Boromir alive, and Merry and Pippin quite at liberty, rather than Fellowship encompassing the skirmish at Rauros.

My last actual book for the month was The White City, follow-up to Down Station, continuing the misadventures of an ethnically diverse group of survivors in an alternate dimension with no clothing stores(3). Dalip, Mary and their dwindling group of friends continue to seek for the secrets of Down, the alternate dimension to which they fled from the apparent annihilation of modern London. Their quest leads them to the fabled White City, but all that they know of this place comes from the treacherous Crows. Loss and separation follow, and even on reaching the city the group remain fragmented. What do the masked rulers of the city really want? Will the group find freedom with a band of pirates? What did happen to Grace back in Down Station? And is there a reason why this Narnia is so shit?

The White City is a decent follow-up to Down Station, although I'm not sure that any definite cause was ever going to be as satisfying as the mystery of Down. The whole is well-crafted, and the peril to the characters, both physical and spiritual, feels real and compelling. As before, the contrast between the fierce, instinctual Mary and the measured, analytical Dalip provides a rounded perspective. The infinitely duplicitous and self-justifying Crows is a bit of a villain for the ages, utterly amoral, yet appallingly affable.

The rest of my month was split between comics and audio plays, which apparently are appearing here now.

I kicked off my comics with Hellboy and the BPRD - 1952-1954. A prequel to the main Hellboy series, they feature the titular archfiend as a young demon, going on his first missions for his adoptive father and the BPRD. This brings the same mix of folkloric monsters, weird science and vigorous face-punching that fans of the main series have become accustomed to, but with a less seasoned protagonist and a more expansive role for Professor Bruttenholm than being killed by a frog monster. If you like Hellboy, and I do, this is going to be another winner, although I can see that you might want to ration yourself a bit more than I did; binging Hellboy can get a little… Samey suggests a level of repetition that isn't actually there, but it is an anthology series, and that doesn't lend itself to bigger chunks.

I also finished off Book 2 of Saga, a sprawling space opera following the life of Hazel, the daughter of two soldiers on opposite sides of a galaxy-spanning war. Hunted by both sides as evidence against the alleged incompatibility of the two sides, Hazel and her parents find strange allies and stranger enemies, as they balance the need to hide and survive with a desire to change the world that they live in.

Saga is… Well, it's big. It's also self-consciously mature and edgy. It's actually kind of a triumph that it transcends being one step beyond PWP(4), although it does mean that my usual reading opportunities - sitting with my daughter as she goes to sleep; the waiting room of my daughter's ballet class - seem inappropriate, hence it has taken me a while to get through this one. It has a gritty edge to it which means that no-o
ne seems safe, but develops enough sympathy for its characters that not only mortal perils, but separation and potential breakups work on the heartstrings.

Sadly, Book 3 is a long way from omnibus.

Completing this month's comic trifecta was Volume 1 of The Complete Valerian. I'd read the first Valerian story - City of Shifting Waters - before, but this omnibus also includes the zeroth book, Bad Dreams, and the second, The Empire of a Thousand Planets. Despite the title, the comics are very much Valerian and Laureline, with the female lead, a strikingly intelligent young woman from mediaeval France, surprisingly close to being the equal of her male partner in the Spatio-Temporal Agency; impressive for a comic created in the late sixties.

Bad Dreams tells the story of the first meeting of our heroes, as Valerian is sent back in time to protect the fabric of history from a wizard. Here he encounters Laureline, a tough survivor with somewhat unlikely hair, who helps him to complete his mission, despite being temporarily transformed into a unicorn. In The Empire of a Thousand Planets they are sent to scout out a new civilisation for first contact, only to find that the name of Earth is known… and hated. Empire breaks away from the first two and contains no actual time travel, although the same technology that allows the Spatio-Temporal Agents to travel in time appears to
solve the problems of FTL travel.

Valerian and Laureline contains a lot that feels familiar, from Valerian's hapless everyman antics - his cunning plans are as likely to end with him falling on his face in plain view of his enemies as in success - to Laureline's role as a female partner who is competent, intelligent and driven, but it's hard to imagine that this would have been the case in 1967.  I feel as if Luc Besson missed a lot of potential in his film adaptation, but then again it's a lot easier to take a risk like setting your pilot story in the last years of modern society as seen through the eyes of a time agent from the distant future in a comic than a big budget movie.

So, the last part of this month's 'reading' is made up of audio plays, as I've been getting back into Big Finish via the medium of sales.

Dark Eyes is a sprawling serial, bringing the 8th Doctor out of his Byronic phase and towards the cynicism that led to his embrace of the War Doctor at his regeneration in the short film The Night of the Doctor. After the loss of a companion and a family member at the conclusion of the 8th Doctor Adventures series, the Doctor was prevented from throwing himself to the far end of time by the Time Lords, who recruit him to find and protect Molly O'Sullivan, a WWI voluntary aid worker who turned out to be the key to an insidious plot hatched by the Dalek Time Controller and a renegade CIA(5) agent and caught up in the transtemporal rise and fall of a terrible galactic menace known as the Eminence.

In the third series of plays, Molly is kidnapped by the Master and his 'companion', Sally Armstrong, with the intention of using the power forced into her body to usurp the Eminence's control of its zombie-like Infinite Warriors.  This Master, played by Alex Macqueen, is a slightly camp, slightly cheeky character, but as ruthless and calculating as any of his incarnations, and is more in control of his temporary alliances with the Daleks and the Eminence than his earlier versions, who always seemed not only unprepared when his fair weather friends turned on him, but actually surprised. The Doctor and his current companion, future physician Liv Chenka, take on the Master and thwart his plans, only to find him resurgent in Dark Eyes 4, conquering the Earth once more.

Dark Eyes is a dark entry in the history of Doctor Who. It's brilliantly performed and realised, and runs the titular renegade through several wringers in the course of its run. If I have a complaint, it's that it feels like running the Doctor through hell is a little too much the point, rather than a simple consequence of the plot. Still, I am a big fan of the McGann Doctor, and Nicola Walker and Ruth Bradley make superb companions as Liv and Molly respectively.

The Worlds of Big Finish was released as a celebration of the company's non-Doctor Who works, following a pattern established in The Worlds of Doctor Who, telling a single story by passing the narrative from each group of characters to the next(6).

We begin with Graceless, a series for which I frankly care very little. I'm not sure it's actively bad, but its positioning as adult, sexy and edgy puts it on the Torchwood end of the Whoniverse, for which I don't especially care even when it's good. Anyway, this entry features weird magic girls Zara and Abby - loosely the wild one and the good one, although from the one series I did pick up, Abby is also the more ruthlessly pragmatic of the two - visiting a vast, pan-dimensional library called the Archive. Arriving much later than intended, they stumble on an apocalypse cult's attempt to destroy every book which describes the destruction of Earth in the early twenty-first century by a force of multidimensional conquerors called the Magog. They thwart this attempt and send the last book to Earth, concealing it in an antiquarian collection.

We then proceed to the early twentieth century, as Sherlock Holmes thwarts a bomber targeting antiquarian book dealers, and then on a few more years to a time when Dorian Gray interceded in an attempt to usher forth the destruction of the world(7). The book surfaces again at the time of the described destruction, but trans-temporal adventuress Iris Wildythyme(8) rambles in to save the day by ramping a time traveling double-decker bus off of Tower Bridge. With the world saved, we then flash forward to the future, where travelling trouble - and person - shooter Vienna Salvatori is hired to recover the book for a criminal big shot on Mars. Now, Vienna is kind of edgy and sexy in the same way as Graceless, but somehow I mind a lot less. It's odd, because I really went into Vienna's first solo adventure expecting to hate it, but it really grabbed me. Maybe it's because it doesn’t feel the need of a lot of sex to be sexy, or just because it manages to make her more likable than either Abby or Zara, but I thoroughly enjoy her brand of sci-fi noir.

We wrap up with Bernice Summerfield thwarting a last hurrah by the Magog to complete their conquest of Earth, before falling more or less into Vienna's lap and finally choosing to conceal the book in question in the one place a book can really disappear: the vast, pan-dimensional library called the Archive.

The Worlds of Big Finish is a lot of fun. Essentially a single story with rotating leads, narrators - Holmes, Gray and Salvatori all provide their own voice-overs - and styles, it's a grand Macguffin hunt, and a fair introduction to the range of stories Big Finish are telling these days.

That being said, the one world decidedly not featured is that of Pathfinder Legends, which I visited after picking up the second series, Mummy's Mask, in another sale. I thought about getting the third, but I'm buying a house, so I have to draw a line somewhere.

Unsurprisingly, Mummy's Mask takes our four intrepid adventurers - atheist wizard Ezren, sassy elven thief Merisiel, lunk of the world Valeros, and grumpy dwarf Ranger Harsk - to the Aegyptian corner of the Pathfinder world. Entering a lottery to be assigned a building to explore in the necropolis of a city long-abandoned to an ancient plague, they stumble on another cult set on restoring a long-dead ruler to power, in this case the Pharaoh Hakotep, who has a fleet of flying laser pyramids and a major chip on his undead shoulder.

Mummy's Mask is a much more substantial offering than Rise of the Runelords, with each of the audio plays in the series twice as long as the previous. One of the things this gave me the chance to notice is that the dialogue is actually incredibly clever. The four leads are somewhat at odds with the world around them in their mode of speech because they are PCs. While there aren't the usual run of pop culture references, everything about them - Harsk's use of what are almost catchphrases, Valeros and Merisiel's lack of commitment to 'period' dialogue - makes sense if they are being voiced by the players, while the supporting characters are NPCs being run by the DM.

Although mostly a decent production, Mummy's Mask suffers a little from having an ancient Egyptian setting written with limited reference to academic sources and depicted by the voice actors available. In Big Finish's defence, the vast majority of the support players are of middle eastern origin, but there are a few dodgy accents, and of course the PCs have a bit of a white saviour role, having come from the more Euro-fantasy part of the world to save notAegypt.

Also, there is a gay couple in this one. They die, I'm sorry to day.

(1) Which amounts to giving the hobbits some Numenorean shivs.
(2) Although saying that, either the extended Fellowship or the extended An Unexpected Journey includes about 60% of the text of 'Concerning Hobbits' - specifically the stuff that doesn't connect the Shire to the rest of the world or depict the hobbits as in any way badass - as voice over.
(3) Two books in, and Dalip is still wearing his Transport for London-issue, Gitmo-chic Orange jumpsuit.
(4) Porn without plot.
(5) Celestial Intervention Agency, the Time Lords' dirty tricks brigade.
(6) The Worlds of Doctor Who featured the Big Finish spin-offs Jago and Litefoot, Countermeasures and Gallifrey, as well as a pair of hapless UNIT goons featured in two of the Companion Chronicles.
(7) Which means that Big Finish's Sherlock Holmes adventures and Confessions of Dorian Gray are in canon with Doctor Who.
(8) Like the Doctor, but female, drunk, and simultaneously more and less effective; also, only occasionally capable of regeneration.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Reading Roundup - April 2018

I kicked off April with A Closed and Common Orbit. Described as Wayfarers Book 2, it's more of a spin-off from Becky Chambers debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, following the past and present fortunes of minor characters from that novel: technician Pepper, her artist boyfriend Blue, and Sidra, an AI from the first novel now illegally embodied in a humanoid form; as well as Sidra's new friend Tak, an Aeluon. Sidra is completely lost in the limits of a human form, having been built to integrate into the systems of an entire spaceship, and moreover as a result of the events of the previous novel this is not a fate that she chose, it instead having been intended by her previous self before she had to be reset. This novel follows two threads: Pepper's, and later Tak's - attempts to help Sidra adapt to human form, and flashbacks to Pepper's childhood as a genetically engineered child-slave and her search for the AI that saved her from that life, but was confiscated from her when they reached 'civilised' space.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a much more compact and intimate tale than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and for my money is all the better for it. The first novel had a breadth of scope that acted against its strengths, which mostly lie in the characters and their small and personal interactions. A Closed and Common orbit is about the quest for identity, and that works with those strengths. Sidra's viewpoint(1) continually refers to Sidra's thoughts, but to the kit's hands; the body she has been given never really feels like hers. This enables a particularly neat scene in the closing chapters which I won't spoiler. I am also particularly fond of the ending, which does not involve Sidra neatly coming to realise that human is best, although I won't say more.

Next up was Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura's limited comic book series I Kill Giants, which has been adapted into a movie which I might see sometime(2).

Barbara Thorson is a troubled girl, obsessed with the idea that she has a calling. "I find giants," she says when questioned abouth er future on careers day. "I hunt giants. I kill giants." Her friend Sophia and the school guidance counsellor grow concerned as she seems to slip further out of control, fighting violently with the school bullies and threatening to unleash Coveleski, the magic warhammer in her handbag. Is Barbara simply retreating into fantasy to avoid her own pain, or are there truly giants causing the grief in the world? Or is the answer not so simple as an either/or?

Illustrated in stark, black and white lines, I Kill Giants is a comic with emotional punch. Barbara is an abrasive character. She is not remotely likeable, but is still deeply sympathetic, surrounded by well-meaning friends and adults who don't know how to offer the help that she needs, and whose assistance she doesn't know how to accept. The giants - real or not - loom large over Barbara's bleak world as dense patches of shadow, and must be fought - one way or another - before she can find any kind of peace.

I managed to find time to finish up another Harry Potter novel, this time The Half-Blood Prince, which means I only have the one left to go. Book six is where Shit Gets Real™, as Harry returns to Hogwarts only to find that his nemesis, Draco Malfoy, seems to be intent on some secret mission for Lord Voldemort, in which he may have the assistance of Professor Snape, and no-one else seems to believe him when he tells them. Also, Dumbledore wants him to spy on the new Potions master, and after the false start of Cho Chang, Harry is finally discovering girls.

The Half-Blood Prince marks the end of the Harry Potter series as it began. The Deathly Hallows is a radical departure from the pattern, which I'll talk about when I get that one finished, but it was about time the series had one, and the old school framing device is looking a little worn. Harry attends barely any lessons, and it's clear that Rowling recognised that Hogwarts had more or less served its purpose. There's a core of a very strong story in The Half-Blood Prince, but the setting which was such a strength in the previous books is here more of a burden.

A bit of a departure now, as I spent a few days with the pilot of the future, in Big Finish's Dan Dare: The Audio Adventures. Normally I do audio plays over on My Life as a Doge, but I picked this up in an offer through Audible, so here we are.

Fifties comic legend Dan Dare joins the Big Finish stable of updated retrofuturist icons in a series of six plays: 'Voyage to Venus', 'The Red Moon Mystery', 'Marooned on Mercury', 'Reign of the Robots', 'Operation Saturn' and 'Prisoners of Space'. A full cast portray updated versions of the characters from the old stories: Daring test pilot Dan Dare, Lieutenant Albert Digby, Professor Peabody and Sir Hubert Whatsisname are all present and correct, or... Well, working class hero Digby is now a gruff, professional soldier with little time for fancy flyboys, Professor Peabody is a corporate shill, and Sir Hubert is all about the military-industrial complex.

So, this is a much more dystopian view of the solar system than I remember from the little Dan Dare I know, with corporate shenanigans on top of the threat of the Mekon, weird, totalitarian superstates among the outer planets, a conspiracy which led to the death of Dare's father, and even the complete conquest of Earth at one point. It's bleak, and doesn't have a neat ending where everything is explained and okay; or even fully explained and not okay. To date, there is no second season of Dan Dare audio adventures. That makes me sad, although I know I'm contributing by buying through Audible and cutting down Big Finish's margins.

I did buy Pathfinder: Rise of the Runelords through Big Finish, although in a sale. This series of audio plays is the first of several based on one of the Adventure Path sets for the Pathfinder RPG, following four of the game's iconic characters(3) - Ezren the human wizard, Harsk the dwarf ranger, Valleros the human fighter, and Merisiel the elf rogue - through one possible iteration of the published adventure(4). From the quiet village of Sandpoint to the ruined city of Xin-Shalast, this band of heroic adventurers pursue glory, vengeance, profit and vague hints of romance(5), and seek to thwart the return of Karzoug, the Runelord of Greed.

Rise of the Runelords is an action-packed adventure, and this is both a blessing and a curse. Action is hard to do well in audio, although in the hands of veteran director John Ainsworth and Big Finish's stable of writers there is a pretty good balance of sound effects and description. The characters are strongly drawn, although there are aspect that are inconsistent between writers; in particular, Merisiel and Valleros seem to fluctuate between friendly antagonism and shared attraction to the local innkeeper, and some sort of Sam and Diane dynamic. Still, overall it's good fun, and I'm likely to pick up the other series that have been released when I have the funds.

Finally for the month, John Gwynne's Malice is book one of a series called The Faithful and the Fallen, a fantasy epic set in a world where a war in heaven long past caused the local creator to up sticks and go off in a huff, leaving the titular faithful and fallen angels - called the Benelim and Cadushim - to duke it out for the fact of creation. Malice follows multiple viewpoint characters in a time of upheaval, as strange creatures stalk the land, giants emerge from the forests, and the rulers of the human kingdoms of the Banished Lands seek for a saviour, the prophesied Bright Star to battle the Black Sun who will champion evil.

Malice is one of those books that upholds the principles of Dark Helmet; that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb. The well-meaning persistently fail to spot glaringly obvious warning signs, and openly pick fights with numerically-superior douchebags. One blindly follows a master who believes himself to be the promised saviour, despite every indication that he's the opposite. Our actual hero neglects to mention a key fact which not only could have - as he himself realises - proved a significant asset during the climactic siege, but also have prevented, or at least slowed, the complete collapse of the defence.

If that sounds harsh, it's mostly because otherwise Malice is pretty good, and I wish it hinged less on such omissions(6). The characters are sympathetic, the untried youth with a great destiny much better written and more sympathetic than many, and the villains at least a little complex. Well, most of them; the sex-crazed witch queen seems pretty one dimensional(7), although we've not had much from viewpoints close to her as yet. I may well pick up the next book in the sequence.

(1) The narrative is third person limited.
(2) You know; if it ever shows up in a cinema near me and/or comes to a streaming service I have.
(3) Pathfinder's iconic characters are archetypal characters designed to illustrate the classes of the game system.
(4) I presume. It seems too acclaimed to be a complete railroad.
(5) Like... really vague, which in fairness is pretty much the level your typical tabletop RPG relationship gets to before everyone starts to feel hella awkward.
(6) It's also possible that some of these would be less egregious in someone without the reader's overarching awareness of the various plot threads, although I would still tend to scoff at those who chose to back the 'Bright Star' whose methodology involves totalitarian, dictatorial rule and brutal, 'greater good' pragmatism in the face of ethical dilemmas.
(7) There are much better female characters in the novel, but far fewer than there are men, and only one is a viewpoint character.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Reading Roundup - March 2018

In the relatively distant future, former soldier-turned-career criminal Takeshi Kovacs is killed resisting arrest, and a few decades later his consciousness is sent to Earth - distant cradle of humanity - where a millionaire wants him to solve his murder. This is all possible because in this particular future, all humans have their mind recorded on a 'cortical stack', so that it can be recovered after death, or transmitted across vast distances, to be rehoused in a new body, or sleeve. In an unfamiliar sleeve, on the unfamiliar streets of the homeworld (Kovacs hails from a colony world far from Earth,) Kovacs must use all his training as an Envoy - a sort of multiclassed diplomat/commando - to adapt, take in information, and complete his commission before someone kills him.

Perhaps due to the trappings of noir(1), Altered Carbon assures us that the gender binary will be alive and well in the post-human, body-switching, interstellar future. 'Cross-sleeving' is a thing, but it's still a thing, and despite several characters using custom-made, artificial sleeves, none of them are even a little bit non-binary(2). Sex workers are all female, and the wife in a tricentennial, ultrarich marriage is a jealous femme fatale with sexy super pheromones built into her cloned sleeve. Her sleeve is also significantly younger than her husband's. This is not to say that there are no good female characters in the book - tough cop Kristen Ortega, punch-clock enforcer Trepp and blue-collar hacker Ava Elliott - but that the world has a lot of retained monotony for a society in which you can, in theory, be anyone you want to be.

That aside, there's a decent mystery at play, integrated well with the sci-fi conceits. It is very heavy on the violence - in a world where it actually takes some serious work to actually and properly kill someone, Kovacs regularly goes the extra mile - and contains at least one sex scene which abuses the good name of 'gratuitous', but it also has a trigger-happy, sentient hotel, so there's that.

Giant Days Volume 6 is - and I know you may not be prepared for this - the sixth volume collecting issues of John Allison's Giant Days comic, and takes our heroines - Susan, Daisy and 'Dark' Esther - into their second year at Sheffield University. Second year means, as anyone who has been through the British further education system will recall, no University-supplied accommodation(3), so our young ladies are in a house-sharing situation, made more complicated by the shenanigans of the previous tenants, the proximity of McGraw (plus new girlfriend), Ed and their monstrous third, Dean Thompson, the irresistible onset of adulthood and responsibility, and of course the usual parade of social and romantic entanglements and, where unavoidable, education. Daisy gets a girlfriend, somewhat against her better judgement, Esther gets a job, and Susan throws a fancy dinner party. 

There's not much to say about Volume 6 that I haven't already said about 1-5. I like it, if you hadn't guessed by the fact that I've got as far as Volume 6. I also found time to read the two Giant Days holiday specials, which are much the same, but more Christmassy.

Also in comics, I picked up Volume 2 of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comic book, collecting two two-part stories. In the first, Big Macintosh wanders around the Ponyville hoedown, looking for nails to repair a gazebo, while the second recounts the story of how Twilight Sparkle's brother, Shining Armour, and Princess Cadence became one another's very special someponies(4). The first is an amusing comedy of errors, while the second - called 'Neigh Anything' - is a razor-sharp parody of 1980s romcom, which also manages to avoid any of the pitfalls of that genre, by making Cadence an active participant in the comedy, rather than a prize to be won, and avoiding most of the tropes of toxic nerdery in Shining Armour and his O&O(5) group.

Finally for the month - lots of birthdays, lots of time off not listening to audiobooks as I travelled - is Blood of Elves.

Years and years ago, I picked up a short story anthology by Polish author Andrej Sapkowski, who at the time was a fantasy rock star in Poland, and almost unheard of in England. This was before The Witcher hit the fantasy action RPG computer game scene like a sledgehammer, so The Last Wish was pretty obscure at the time. I'd consider myself an early adopter, but I then didn't read anything much else by Sapkowski until well after I'd played some of The Witcher(6); until this month, in fact.

The Last Wish is an anthology of short stories, loosely inspired by fairy tales, but with more swordfights and explicit shagging(7). Blood of Elves is the first of the Witcher novels, and if I can say one thing for it, it's that it gives you a new appreciation of Tolkien's ability to weave backstory and character names into the narrative, especially in the opening scene, when the troubadour Dandelion(8) is grilled about his sources by a parade of people who insist on naming themselves and their affiliations as they speak in order to give some background on the political upheavals of the area, the impending threat of Nilfgaardian invasion, and the prophecied survival of a girl with more titles than Harry Potter - Ciri, Lion Cub of Cintra, eponymous Blood of Elves, the 'Child Surprise' - who is fated to come under the protection of Geralt of Rivia, most infamous of the self-mutated, monster-hunting Witchers. 

This part of the story proves to be true, with Geralt taking in the girl some time after her escape from the sack of Cintra during the first Nilfgaard war. He takes her to Witcher camp for a while, where she trains in combat, cross-country running and monster hunting, then brings in the sorceress Triss Merigold to assess her magical potential. Finding her potential to be best described as 'ludicrously vast,' they move her to a nunnery and place her under the tutelage of Geralt's Facebook-it's-complicated, Yennefer of Vengerberger(9), while Geralt goes looking for whoever is asking questions about Ciri.

Cover also available in macho.
There is a spy searching for Ciri, and a bunch of political shenanigans, but plotwise that's about it, and I admit I was a bit taken aback when the book ended with little or no fanfare and no significant cliffhanger. It picked up a lot from the rather stilted opening, although its omniscient third-person narration leaves the characters as little more than cyphers. In particular, we never really get a handle on why the monster-hunting James Bond Geralt is so determined to protect Ciri, beyond a certain inherent bloody-mindedness and general feeling of Witcherly defensive duty. It's also difficult to get a handle on the general historicity of the world, which mixes high fantasy with fairly modern scientific terminology. It's not terrible, but I'm certainly not rushing to the next volume.

(1) Or at least of Bladerunner's particular style of scifi noir.
(2) At least, none that are memorable.
(3) This is totally not true if you went to Cambridge.
(4) I know my stuff, okay. I'm down with the ponies.
(5) Oubliettes & Ogres, which I'm pretty sure was Ogres & Oubliettes in the show.
(6) Only some; I have no patience with CRPGs.
(7) Not the swing dance.
(8) Dan-del-ee-on, rather than dandy-lion.
(9) Not, as I keep thinking it, Vengabus.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Reading Roundup - January and February 2018

New Horizons Challenge: TheHandmaid's Tale

In January, I treated myself to the 4th and 5th volumes of Giant Days, John Allison's comic following the adventures of Scary-Go-Round alumna Esther de Groot and her friends at the University of Sheffield (as I'm sure I've explained before.) 

Volumes 4 and 5 follow the trio of Esther, Susan Ptolemy and Daisy Wooton through the final term of their freshman year, the summer vacation and the beginning of their second year. Independent film-making provides a distraction from the horrors of money troubles and house-hunting, and a new shadow falls over the group as shady entrepreneur Dean Thompson appears on the scene. The summer brings the excitement of the Wye Valley music festival, and then the new year the group's first shared housing. As ever, Giant Days combines its lively sense of the absurd with a touch of the mundane to produce a fast-paced, madcap bundle of fun. Well worth the reading. 

These volumes also feature a return to the nexus of weird that is Tackleford, and are notable for their treatment of supporting character Ed Gemmell. Previously Esther's nice-guy semi-stalker, Allison takes the unusual and refreshing step of having the character recognise that pining over a girl won't make something happen, and then move on before the whole thing becomes a festering toxic pit of entitlement.

Also courtesy of Comixology was The Witchfinder General, a six-part limited series, following the misadventures of Drew Jackson, a Pentagon intern who finds himself assigned as apprentice to the US Witchfinder General and then rapidly promoted to become head of the department after his boss spontaneously combusts. The Department of Witchfinding has a fine tradition of ruthlessly suppressing the supernatural, but Drew has a very different approach, trying to make friends out of enemies. It's a philosophy that looks set to cut little ice with the Nine, an ancient cadre of nigh-immortal witches set for their ninth and final assault on the pillars of reality, but it is the one thing he has going for him that generations of more powerful and experienced Witchfinders General didn't have. 

I really enjoyed The Witchfinder General. It follows the fairly well-trodden path of young rookie stumbles into contact with ancient mysteries, winds up out of his or her depth, tries to do something new, but it does it well and it's definitely better than holding up the witchfinders of the past as shining paragons of virtue. Also, it features Benjamin Franklin in the role of armoured, time-travelling badass the Clockwork Minuteman. That's the kind of secret history it's hard not to like.

Next up, I hit Stephen Fry's new collection of Greek mythological retellings: Mythos. This is an odd beast, with Fry - as both author and narrator, the latter continuing a recent trend in my listening, from Harry Potter and the Audible complete Sherlock Holmes collection, as well as the free sampler of their equally Frylicious reading of Holmes-adjacent detective series, Max Carados - recounting his material somewhat in the style of a media journo recapping the soaps. From the teenage emo crushes of the Titans to the sleazy leching of Zeus and the almost mature and considered love affairs of other gods and mortals, Fry focuses his gaze heavily on the early cosmic myths of creation and espeically the Theogony of Hesiod, rather than the more conventional greatest hits entries of the Age of Heroes: Heracles, the Argonauts, the Trojan War, and all of that jazz. This combination of voice and material results in something markedly different to your typical myth collection; a cosily accessible anthology of child-eating, spouse-eating, abuse cycles, metamorphoses and domestic douchebaggery. It's a lot of fun, but won't float your boat if you like your mythology done with proper epic reverence.

What the Hell Did I Just Read? is the third volume in the David and John cosmic horror series by David Wong. As with the previous volumes in the series - John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders Serious Dude,Don't Touch It - What the Hell Did I Just Read? is a fast-moving fusion of cosmic horror, supernatural action and scatological humour, as David and John bring their barely understood and virtually unearned abilities to bear on a case of monstrous child kidnapping. Now, if you know me at all - either in person, or through the blog - you'll know that this was always going to be a tough one for me. Whether because of this, or because the joke is wearing a little thin, I definitely found this tougher going than either of the previous novels. On the other hand, I was impressed that the book addressed a crucial and often overlooked point regarding its own protagonist: That it is entirely possible that someone faced with constant struggles with the supernatural, cursed with unique insight beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, and stalked by malignant extradimensional entities, could also suffer from serious, but treatable mental illness. Props for that.

Barchester Towers is the second volume of the Barchester Chronicles of Anthony Trollope. It continues to follow the doings of the clergy of the cathedral city of Barchester, as the Chapter faces the upset of a new bishop. Dr Proudie is a henpecked man, given the seat in preference over the Archdeacon, son of the previous Bishop and presumed successor until an eleventh hour fall of the friendly ministry. Along with his overbearing, self-righteous wife, Dr Proudie brings into the cathedral close the scheming and obsequious Mr Slope, one of literature's finest and most mundane villains. Once more, other men take up arms over Mr Harding's position at Hiram's Hospital, and the struggle between Mr Slope, Mrs Proudie and Archdeacon Grantly for control of the cathedral and the diocese threatens to overthrow all peace in the hallowed halls of Barchester. As with The Warden, the delight of Barchester Towers lies mostly in Trollope's wry, satirical style, and in particular his great pains to relieve the reader of any concern that his heroine, the widow Mrs Bold, might end up with the ghastlier of her suitors. I suspect that at the time it was pretty scathing satire, but with time it has become a rather cosy read for when you don't want to be doing with violence and inhumanity.

I also decided that I was going to go back to a YA series I never finished when I first read it, and so began from the start with the eponymous first volume of the Skulduggery Pleasant series. Stephanie is drawn into a weird secret world of secrets and sorcery when her uncle dies, leaving her a house, a fortune, and an occult secret or two. Attacked by magical henchmen, she is rescued by Skulduggery Pleasant, a skeletal magician with more than a few secrets of his own, who becomes her teacher as well as her guardian, as the two seek to prevent a sorcerer named Nefarian Serpine gaining ultimate power and returning his dark gods to the world. 

Skuldugery Pleasant is witty and fast paced, with a fairly rugged magic system and an effective, show-not-tell approach to most of its world-building. Bursting with one-liners, action scenes and more entertaining, misguidedly self-assumed nomes de guerre than you can shake a stick at, this is a solid opening chapter, and I think I'll make an effort to get through the whole series this time.

My final read for this period was a bit of a struggle. The Masked City is the second book of the Invisible Library series, following Irene Winters, a relatively junior agent of an extradimensional library devoted to maintaining the balance between order - represented by the dragons - and chaos - embodied in the fae. When a pair of power-hungry fae known as Lord and Lady Guantess abduct her dragon apprentice, Kai, Irene is willing to go to any lengths to prevent the long-standing cold war between dragons and fae erupting into open conflict, and to rescue her friend. There's a lot to like in the Invisible Library series, not least the fact that the masked city of the title is a high chaos world that is basically nothing but Venice in carnival, but also a lot that gives me significant pause.

There's a tentative romance between Irene and Kai that is literally the least interesting thing about either character, and tritagonist Peregrine Vale brings all the least appealing features of the Holmsian detective into play with his arrogance and effortless competence, not only assuming that a lady must need protection but somehow being able to offer that protection to Irene soundly within her sphere of competence. The book isn't terrible, but I wanted to like it much more than, in the end, I was able to.

New Horizons Challenge - The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Reason for Reading: This is another of those books that I really ought to have read an age ago, and in fact it's been on my challenge lists as long as I've been setting myself reading challenges. I've heard abridged versions, but with the adaptation and the state of the world making it such a relevant talking point, this felt like the moment to go the whole hog.

Set in the not too distant future, The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred, a handmaid in the theocratic post-America of Gilead, a society in which faith is a cudgel and fertile women are assigned to the households of the childless elite to bear children for them. It's a nightmarish dystopia, yet one not a million miles from where we live today, with the flashbacks to the emergence of Gilead through a series of executive orders and incremental cessation of liberty as salutary a warning as ever they were. Offred's story is explicitly an unreliable narrative, which the epilogue suggests could as easily be some sort of post-Gilead propaganda as a genuine account of the times, but only in the personal sense. The wider narrative never questions the nature of Gilead - the tyranny and corruption, the hypocritical theocracy, the grim subjugation of women's reproductive faculties - only the individual narrative which provides it with a personal, emotional context, which is, in itself, a commentary on the drive to personalise 'history', both in and out of fiction. By focusing on Offred(1), The Handmaid's Tale gives us an individual to connect with, but the epilogue gives us one last caution by reminding the reader that actually the horror of this story is not that it is happening to one specific person, but that it is happening to everyone.

Of course, the real problem with reviewing The Handmaid's Tale is finding something new to say about it. It's not just a classic, but its recent adaptation pushed it back to the forefront of cultural discussion, so basically anything that was going to be said about it - its original relevance, its contemporary resonance, its literary value and influence - has been said more than once. On a more personal level, it would be untrue to say that I enjoyed it - it's hard skating, and portrays a horrible nation in mundane detail - but I certainly appreciated it.

(1) One of the things that an audio adaptation can hide is that the handmaids' names are in the form 'Of X', where X is the name of their Commander, thus further annihilating their individuality; the one on BBC 7 pronounced them all 'off' as if they were a government regulatory and inspecting body

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.