Wheel of Time Re-read: The Eye of the World

And Book One of my Wheel of Time Reread is done.

Three thousand years since the world was all but destroyed in the War of the Shadow, the Dark One has begun to stir in his prison. As those aware of such things begin to fear the coming of the prophisied Last Battle for the fate of humanity, Rand Al’Thor, a young farmer, finds himself fleeing his home pursued by monsters from legend. As he and his friends make their way into the world, he begins to suffer dreams that may well mean he is destined to save, or destroy, the whole of creation.

I first read The Eye of the World by the pool in a hotel in Spain. I was on my first holiday with my now wife, and I remember buying it as a whim at the airport. If I remember correctly the quote on the front cover said something along the lines of it being better than Tolkien, and I decided to pick it up so I could properly mock it for such a grandiose claim.

When I got home I immediately ordered Book Two.

It’s not the best in the series. I remember even at the time I thought the story was a little too close to the plot of Fellowship of the Ring. But there was something about it. I didn’t know what at the time, but now I recognise that it was a sense that the world I was being shown was so much bigger than the story I was reading.

Most fantasy books, epic or not, never manage to make it feel that their world is any bigger than the parts we see. The writers flesh out the areas the character travels, but there’s no sense that the world is anything more. As if the protagonist sees everything important, and the rest is inconsequential.

What Jordan managed was to make me feel is that his story is taking place in a small part of something much greater. As is usual in fantasy, the innocent protagonist is pulled from his idilic home into a bigger world. With each step he feels he’s seeing the biggest new thing possible, only to discover even greater still with the next. But with Jordan’s writing you feel there is still more out there.

There is the promise of so much more, teasing a story with a scope we haven’t yet seen.

And there is so much set-up here. The point I always highlight is how there is a passing exchange between two characters, no more than a couple of paragraphs, that set up something we don’t see until around book thirteen. That’s how forward planned these books were. They don’t dwell on it. There’s no “Look at that over there, it must surely be important. One day will will visit that place” dialogue. They just mention is in passing, along with a lot of other things, and let it lie.

So is this book perfect? No. It is a promise of great story to come? Yes.

If you’ve read enough epic fantasy the story won’t be original, but take that as an introduction and you’ll be letting yourself into something amazing.

And on a side note, look at how beautiful this copy is. I can’t remember exactly when this special edition came out. It may have been a twentieth anniversary print, or something to celebrate the series ending. What I do remember is preordering this baby without a second thought.

Now on to Book Two: The Great Hunt.

Reveiw: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

The simplest review for Outlander is that while it was never bad enough for me to want to stop reading, the only feelings I had by the end were relief that I was done with it.

The plot is just so disjointed and jarring. The world and the characters are fleshed out and interesting, but Gabaldon has no idea how to lay out exposition without having her protagonist literally sit down and have a conversation with someone able to spend a chapter lay everything out for her.

Literally at one point the love interest says, in as many words, “Do you remember I told you there were things in my history I couldn’t tell you about yet. I’ve decided that I can now.” Any reason he couldn’t before but could now? Other than they were further into the book, I couldn’t see one.

Outlander’s Plot: Protagonist is in a situation; Protagonist sits down with another character who explicitly lays out a large chunk of exposition; Protagonist moves on to next situation. Repeat until book is twice as long as it needs to be.

And when I say “twice as long”, that’s no exaggeration. I have no idea who looked at this story and thought, “this needs to be over 300,000 words”, but they need to be found and stopped. This is not Epic Fantasy. It’s a Fantasy Romance. Any half decent editor could have told Gabaldon that this needed to be either split into two separate books, or drastically cut by a minimum of a third. A minimum.

I’m willing to give a pass on how quickly the protagonist adapts to being in the the past, and the nature of the interactions and relationships between her and the main love interest. There are… problematic elements, especially when it comes to 18th Century attitudes towards women. But this is, somewhere in its sprawling length, a romance novel. I wasn’t expecting a realistic portrayal of relationships.

And the most frustrating thing about it is I can’t bring myself to simply dislike Outlander. All the way through, while despairing at the exposition dumps and overlong periods of nothing happening while we waited for the next exposition dump, I found myself actually engaged. The concept has real potential. There are moments where you can see Gabaldon has done her research and has some interesting ideas about how a 1940s viewpoint would interact with 1740s society, and there are enough plot threads left hanging that I would honestly like to learn more about. But the idea of starting book two and having to slog my way through another one like this one send shivers down my spine.

So I find myself torn. After a break I may come back to this series. But I know that if I do by the time I’m half way through the next book I’ll be wishing it was over.

Wheel of Time Re-Read: New Spring

After years of fighting, the Aiel War is coming to an end. But while many are hoping for peace, Moiraine Damodred is privy to a piece of information that could set the world aflame once more: The Dragon, the man who all but destroyed the world three thousand years ago, has been reborn.

As all others with this knowledge are found dead in suspicious circumstances, it is up to Moiraine to find the newborn child destined to lead the world to ruin, hoping he can be guided for the good of mankind. Because if the agents of the Dark find him first, it will mean the end of everything.

I was excited about starting my Wheel of Time Re-Read, but I wasn’t expecting to get pulled back into the series so quickly.

New Spring is a slight oddity. It’s a prequel – a prequel that annoyed a lot of people who wanted Jordan to focus on completing the main story – depicting how two of the main characters of the first few books meet and the begin the quest we find them on – eighteen years later – in the first book if the series.

As someone who’s read the series already it’s a great way to start a reread. It’s a reminder that the story has been going on years, even centuries, before the main protagonist of the series was even born, in a way that makes the world seem so much bigger. And this has always been my main draw to the series; how Jordan managed to make the world feel so vast, yet varied.

But I’m not sure where I’d recommend it for someone coming into the series for the first time. It’s interesting to a fan to have this little piece of backstory, but I can’t say for certain it this would add to the experience of someone coming new to the series, or if it would remove some of the mystery from the first few books.

But if you don’t read it first, when would be the best time? Adding it in as a flashback between two of the main books doesn’t seem to work. I’ll have a think about it once I’m into The Eye of the World and see what I think then.

Now on to The Eye of the World.

Recommendation: “The War of the Wolf” by Bernard Cornwell

Now an old man, Uhtred of Bebbanburg finds himself drawn back to Wessex by old oaths and the inevitable coming invasion of Northumbria. But while an ailing King Edward means that soon he’ll find himself marching south, for now he is drawn north by personal vengeance and what may be his final battle.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Bernard Cornwall’s series being very samey. I can understand the argument. But I still find that each once is just as readable as the last, and I’ve been waiting eagerly for War of the Wolf to come out in paperback.

I think these books avoid seeming too similar by being based on history. The characters are driven by on actual events, and so while the plot and characters may undeniably have a similarity across all the books, the fact they are draped over the backdrop of history gives them a realism they might otherwise have lacked.

Saying that, I would have though I’d have liked this one less. The majority of the story in War of the Wolf is not based in real events. Essentially, the book sets up the coming death of Edward and rise of Ethelstan that I assume will be the drive of the next story, leaving the majority of the story fictional. But I still enjoyed reading this just as much as the previous stories.

There’s also the fact we’re coming to the end of this series. Uhtred is now in his sixties. And while he, our narrator, can’t die, Cornwall does a very good job of showing age catching up with him. He’s losing speed. He’s still imposing, but lacks the raw power of youth that drove him before. And at the same time, he can see that Christianity is winning, and the old religion, his religion, is passing away. He’s a man beginning to face his own mortality, but in a way that suits the character.

There’s maybe two more books left to this series, assuming that it will end with Ethelstan’s rise as the first king of England (sorry for spoilers, but I think we’re out of the statute of limitations for events over a millennia ago), and War of the Wolf kind of has the feeling of a quick breather before the final push to the climax of the story of the creation of England.

If you’re a fan of the series, that fact is going to leave you more than excited for the next instalment.

Recommendation: “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

I am by now convinced that I’ll never not enjoy a Kate Atkinson novel. I can’t say this is my favourite of hers, but that still puts it above most other books. I picked this book up the day I found it had come out in paperback. Atkinson isn’t a writer who you see and don’t grab.

Juliet Armstrong is one of the hundreds of girls brought into the security service on the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon she is selected to join an MI5 operation tracking and recording Nazi sympathisers. We jump between 1940 and the doubts of the early days of the war, to 1950 as Juliet now works at the BBC and has to face new doubts about decisions she made during the war that might be coming back to haunt her.

As always Atkinson presents her story through and emotional and beautifully rendered world. If feels like a different type of historical spy novel. A spy thriller from the point of view of the transcription girl. And it is historical, based on real operations undertaken at the time.

As I said above, it’s not my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. She has written enough now that I feel that can be said without sounding like I’m saying she’s slipping. Some books will be better than others. It’s still an amazing read, and drags you along as soon as it grabs you.

Recommendation: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

It’s World Book Day. I hope you’re all revelling in your favourite reads, or throwing yourself into a book you’ve never read before. Because if there’s one thing that’s just as good as – or perhaps even better than – the joy of rereading an old favourite its that feeling of realisation that the book you’ve just begun is going to be wonderful. That deep happiness of knowing that you will never again get to experience this novel for the first time.

This is what I just encountered with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I wish I could remember exactly who recommend this to me last year, because then I could thank them to directing me to the experience of this read. Sometimes, when you’re trying to describe something, you don’t need fancy words. On these occasions the simple ones will fit better, as they can portray the essentialness of something.

The words that best describe The Night Circus? “Soft” and “Beautiful”.

Le Cirque de Reves moves around the world. It appears in one place as if by magic, opens only between sunset and sunrise, and then after a few days disappears just as suddenly. Decorated solely in black and white, populated by performers and attractions so otherworldly and imaginative that you can barely believe they are real, the experience of walking through the gate is akin to stepping into a dream. And behind all this are Celia and Marcus, two young magicians engaged in a contest to which neither understand the rules or know how or when a winner will be chosen.

Morgenstern’s writing is comforting without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious. It has the feel of something new that’s been expertly hand crafted to feel old and comfortable. She doesn’t rush a single word. If you require fast paced action, this isn’t the book for you. The story takes its time, letting the characters and the world grow at their own pace. Without wanting to sound to pretentious, the experience of reading the book has the feeling of exploring the circus itself; leisurely admiring every aspect as it comes until you complete your circuit and finally understand the full layout.

While I was reading The Night Circus I never felt rushed. I never looked at the number of pages remaining to guess how much I had left. I felt completely immersed, to the point where I actually felt sad when I reached the end. If you allow it, Morgenstern’s writing will sweep you up and carry you off out of this world and into its own.

Review: The Beauty of Murder

This was an odd one for me. Taken in it’s entirety, I liked every aspect of it. It’s only looking at each aspect individually that different elements jarred for me.

fullsizeoutput_33a4The Beauty of Murder has an truly fascinating concept; how do you track down and capture a time travelling murderer? Someone who can dump a body centuries before they committed the crime? Or even after? Stephen Killigan is a newly arrived Cambridge lecturer who stumbles upon the body of a missing beauty queen that seemingly disappears before he can show anyone. Soon he finds himself caught up in the web of Jackamore Grass, a man with the ability to time travel and a fascination with the apparent beauty of death.

The book itself is great. I’m not a massive fan of crime mysteries, but this avoids most of the tropes I dislike and its concept gaves it a twist that adds a wonderfully fantastical element that other books of this genre often lack. The writing itself is great, and for the most part the characters are interesting and believable.

The only one who put me off a bit was, unfortunately, the protagonist himself. I didn’t go to Cambridge so I might not know the place or the culture, but Stephen Killigan just didn’t quite fit for me. He was a little too cool, and little too instantly popular. The scenes of him teaching didn’t really feel believable for someone starting a prestigious new job. (He also seemed to have a habit of getting tattoos on a whim, from tattooist who will work on people who have just wondered into their shop, which left me a little judging as to their integrity, but I think that’s just me.) Most of the time I had no problem with him, especially once the story got going and I was able to settle into him. It just took a little while to get comfortable enough to slide past those ragged parts.

The other issue I had was the timeframe. About halfway through there is a massive time jump which didn’t seem to be addressed. Without wanting to give too much away, one of the main characters goes through a serious operation that would have required several weeks of recovery. But this jump isn’t addressed, and I was left with the feeling that the plot just paused for a few months. It didn’t ruin the story, I just feel that there needed to be something more here to address this as it left me wondering why all the other character just got on with their lives waiting for this one to get batter.

But other than these two gripes I really enjoyed The Beauty of Murder. It took a few chapters for me to get into it, and the middle had this jarring point where timeframes didn’t match up, but the rest of it was great. A brilliant concept, intriguing ideas and a murderer with methods I hadn’t read anywhere else.

Review: Stick and Stones

Imogen has lived her life under the control of her husband, Phillip, from the first day she met him. Even after her left her and their son for a younger woman, their shared past has meant she’s never been able to be truly free of him. But when he suddenly demands she move out her house in two weeks, it start of a series of events that brings Imogen together with Phillip’s first wife and new girlfriend. Together they learn that through Phillip they share a bond no one else can understand, and decide that they will finally no longer allow him to control them.

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Sticks and Stones (Or Exes Revenge in America) is an amazing debut novel, and an astounding piece of domestic noir. Opening with the Phillip’s funeral, we’re then taken back over the previous two weeks – and the years preceding –  to discover exactly what happened that led to his death.

The story is expertly put together. It manages to twist and turn without ever feeling gimmicky or predictable. At no point do you get bored or feel anything is being padded out. Jakeman’s writing is lean and slick, leaving in nothing unnecessary. She perfectly keeps the mystery going without resorting to cheap tricks or cliches, throwing in red herrings and distractions that made it impossible to guess where we’re heading. At times I thought I’d guessed incoming reveals onto to discover I was completely wrong.

But as good as the story is, it’s the characters that really make this book. The concept of the mentally abusive husband and dominated wife finally seeking revenge is one that could easily become two dimensional, but Jakeman has created a cast of characters who all feel fleshed out and real. You really feel for Imogen, who never comes across as either comically weak or impossibly resolved. When she changes it’s because her character development brought here there, not because the plot required it to move forward. She comes across as a real person doing her best to avoid conflict with an ex-husband she knows can control her but can do nothing about, all the while fighting to protect her son over everything else. Phillip, too, is never a pantomime villain. He may be a monster, but he’s a monster of the type we all know is so very real. The kind who hides behind a reputation and knows exactly what they are doing.

Sticks and Stones isn’t any easy read. There are trigger warnings for all aspects of domestic abuse here. But all of it is packaged in an impossibly hard to put down story of one woman discovering how far she is prepared to go to defend her child and get revenge on a man determined to ruin her life.

Happy World Book Day all you Comfortable Books, you…

Happy World Book Day, everyone.

As is tradition, children all over the UK have gone to school dressed up as characters from their favourite books. Or this year, more likely, stayed at home due to schools being closed by the snow and spent the day actually reading their favourite books.

That’s what kids do on snow days, right? Curl up and read? I’m not a parent, but I’m pretty sure that’s right.

Anyway, I thought that in honour of this day rather than talking about one of my favourite books I would instead discuss those comfortable books we all love. You know the ones I mean. The ones that have been on your shelves for longer than you can remember. The ones you have been read countless times; because you needed something familiar and friendly to get you through a tough time, had nothing new to read, or just wanted to re-read an old favourite. You know the story like the back of your hand, but they’re either so good or have such sentimental value that you could never lose interest. The ones with worn down covers and curling pages, adorned with multiple tiny tears that broke your heart at the time but now seem part of its overall cosiness. They are not something you bought with the intent of it becoming like this. It’s something that just develops over time. 

I love hardback books. They may be harder to carry around or read on the go, but there is just something solid and satisfying about them. Once an author is on my Favourites List I’ll always start picking up their books in hardback rather than paperback. But sometimes you just can’t beat a comfortable, beaten up old paperback. 

img_0118I’ve actually just finished re-reading one of these; Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Look at it there. I believe that I “acquired” this one from my parents. If I remember correctly, I borrowed it to read at university, and have simply never returned it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read and re-read it over the following 13 years, and I’ve no idea how many time other members of my family did so before me. Each time he published a follow up I bought them straight away, in hardback of course, but but I could never bring myself to replace this one.

Not all books like this survive. I remember watching as my family’s copies of the Discworld books were read into oblivion; slowly falling apart or becoming damaged until they were replaced, with like for like or by more durable hardcover upgrades. And when I left home and had to buy them for myself, I always picked them up in hardcover, or course. You don’t buy your favourite author of all time in paperback if you have the choice. 

But this one has lasted. It’s 28 years old now, and I’m sure within a few years I’ll feel the urge to pick it up, open it’s ragged cover and read the smooth, gently yellowing pages once again. Who knows, maybe it’ll last another twenty years or so until I have children old enough to give it ago and it will somehow transfer my my collection to theirs. Or maybe not.

I’ll never stop buying hardbacks. But whatever their qualities they’ll never quite have the same character as a good, well-worn and well-loved paperback.

Review: Uzumaki

When you’re reading horror, what you want to discover is a book that takes something mundane and everything and manages to make you see in it something new and unsettling that will make you question, if only for a short while, whether those things you’ve always considered safe are truly so.

And so when you find something as deliciously twisted and original as Uzumaki it’s impossible not to love it.

Uzumaki

Uzumaki tells the story of a Kurôzu-cho, a town haunted not by ghosts or monsters, but by a pattern. A Spiral. The books is broken down into episodic stories, each one telling the next stage in the story of how more and more of the population first slowly become obsessed with The Spiral, that pattern that permeates the world. Through the eyes of Kirie Goshima, a teenager seemingly in the centre of it all, we gradually the episodes begin see how something so everyday as a pattern reoccurring in nature can in fact be a sign of something far more ancient and terrifying.

I absolutely loved this story. I’m a total sucker for twisted horror like this, where the everyday world is gradually shifts and reveal that there is no place to hide from the things we thought were safe. Add to this beautifully grotesque artwork that seriously made me double-task several times while I read, and this becomes something you simply cannot put down.

My only quibble was that some of the middle chapters felt a little too stand alone. With some of the stories is was hard to put aside reality when wondering why people in the weren’t reacting more to what was happening to them. Even if it had been something simple like a few lines pointing out that it was strange how little people were reacting, rather than accepting and getting on with their lives.

But as the story continues and all the elements begin to come together this issue fades away. Once you’ve got to the end the way people act makes more sense. I would have just liked the final explanation behind to have been seeded a little earlier to prevent these niggling feelings.

But that minor issue aside I can’t recommend this book enough, and I will be looking for more of Junji Ito’s work as soon as my current reading pile goes down a little bit more.