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.

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?