Thursday, 27 October 2005

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2004
Review number: 1307

The is obviously something of a golden age in British science fiction and fantasy at the moment. For the first time ever, this year's Hugo novels short list was dominated by British entries (though this may be because the 2005 WorldCon, whose delegates vote in the award, was held on this side of the Atlantic). Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was the winner of the Hugo, and is in my opinion more than just the best fantasy novel of the year; it ranks amongst the classics of the genre while comprehensively rejecting the heroic style that has dominated it since Tolkien. Last year, the literary fantasy novel which most impressed me, Iain R. MacLeod's The Light Ages, was clearly heavily influenced by Dickens. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell also harks back to a nineteenth century style, but this time it is George Eliot who is the model. Like MacLeod, Clarke writes well enough for the comparison to be justifiable rather than pure hyperbole.

Again like The Light Ages, this novel is a portrait of an England full of magic; rather than the industrial raw material of MacLeod's story, Clarke imagines it as an art practised by the gifted in learned societies (rather like the scientific groups which were around in the seventeenth and eighteenth century). In the early years of the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic Wars, the practise of magic has died out, and those who call themselves magicians are either charlatans and conjurors or scholars producing learned treatises on the accomplishments of English magicians of the past. The Middle Ages had been the age of the aureate or golden magicians including the Raven King who once ruled half the land. The novel is the story of the two men who are destined to be instrumental in bringing magic back to England, and they are both more scholars than heroes (though Jonathan Strange accompanies Wellington on his campaigns in Spain).

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a long novel full of detail (which is often amusing). Everything is done to make it read as though it were a real world nineteenth century novel, including the sort of footnotes often found in modern editions, here explaining the references to magical history. In effect, it's meant to seem as though a product of this universe of magic has fallen through somehow to be published in this mundane world. Everything in it is normal - according to its own rules - and the characters in it are normal people, and not valiant paladins or sorcerers steeped in unspeakable evil. (Mr Norrell is distinctly reminiscent of Eliot's Casaubon from Middlemarch, if rather more successful in his scholarly endeavours.)

While very different from most fantasy novels today, I found myself reminded of some of my favourites from the genre: John Crowley's Little, Big and Neil Gaiman's Stardust. It is milder than the latter and more overtly intellectual than either, but really has a similar atmosphere to it as both these stories. Clarke's debut - which is incredibly accomplished - is at least on a level with these two. It should become a gentle classic of a genre not generally known for its subtlety; a truly great novel.

Tuesday, 18 October 2005

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2005
Review number: 1306

Most of the Harry Potter books so far have begun with tales of the mistreatment of Harry by the Dursleys during the summer holidays, which provide a comic note even as the novels as a whole become darker. The first exception is The Goblet of Fire, which begins a quite chilling scene featuring Voldemore himself. The Half-Blood Prince is the second, and it begins with a very different scene: the introduction of the new Minister of Magic (the incomptencies of Cornelius Fudge having finally led to his replacement) to the British Prime Minister, who is the only Muggle in the country permitted to know about the existence of magic. It is an odd beginning to the novel, especially when you compare it to The Goblet of Fire - what happens in Voldemort's ancestral home is of great importance to the plot, but the scene with the Prime Minister seems only to be used to introduce the new Minister of Magic, who is a comparatively minor character in the novel, before being completely forgotten. Of course, the two of them may turn out to be more important later on - Rowling has proved to be quite good at picking up details later, and there are several examples of the way that she does this in The Half-Blood Prince.

The plot this time is more to do with Dumbledore's attempts to help Harry understand Voldemort's background rather than the machinations of Voldemort attempting to kill Harry - the focus of the earlier stories. A crucial part is played by memory - Harry watches several episodes from Voldemort's early life which are either Dumbledore's own memories or ones he has collected. They do this because Dumbledore is convinced that these memories are key to understanding what has happened to Voldemort since his attack on Harry's parents: why had his failure to kill Harry as well led to his disappearance and a shadowy half-existence?

However, the main theme of the novel is not so much its plot as the evolvution of the relationships between the characters established earlier in the series, as contrasted to the cold calculation that marks out the manipulation that is the only way that Tom Riddle (the young Voldemort) seems to relate to those around him. This novel is in fact a six hundred page exposition of something Dumbledore tells Harry, that the important difference between him and Riddle is the role that love plays in his life, from the sacrifice his parents made of their own lives trying to protect him to the way he works with his friends as contrasted with the subservient obedience Voldemort demands of his Death Eaters. It also plays to one of Rowlings' strengths as a writer, her characters. Harry at sixteen is not the same as Harry at eleven; growing up and his experiences have developed Rowling's central character. By concentrating on relationships, both he and the lesser characters become rounded out; even Draco Malfoy becomes more than an arrogant bully.

A lot of what happens in The Half-Blood Prince fits in with the things I had guessed would occur or was widely predicted by fans, but the one important event I didn't expect at ll (which occurs near the end, so I won't say anything that gives it away) is possibly not what it seems to be on the surface: in the last magical confrontation, think about what Harry is prevented from doing, and what this may mean.

The intention behind The Half-Blood Prince is sufficiently different from the earlier books that it is not easy to compare its quality with the rest of the series. We learn a lot of background, and this is handled very well indeed; so often this sort of thing becomes a boring interlude between the scenes of action. It has a serious tone, which is reasonable considering the events it follows at the end of The Order of the Phoenix, not least in their effects on Harry's own life. The adventures of Harry Potter have been moving in this direction since The Goblet of Fire, and in this book Harry is being prepared, as he, the other charadcters, and the readers all know, for the most serious confrontation he will ever face. In the end, The Half-Blood Prince is much more dependent on its place in the series than the others, and is the only one (so far) that would really suffer from being read out of context.

Wednesday, 12 October 2005

Lawrence Durrell: The Dark Labyrinth (1947)

Originally titled: CefalĂ»
Edition: Faber & Faber, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1305

In all of Lawrence Durrell's novels, the author combines an apparently realistic story with psychological and spiritual allegroy, so that nothing necessarily means what it appears to signify on the surface. (I wouldn't class them as fully allegorical, because I can't come up with a meaning beyond the surface one for some aspects of each novel.) In The Dark Labyrinth, his first novel, the scaffolding which makes this structure work is much more obvious than in his later work, making it simultaneously easier to understand but less resonant because the cleverness registers consciously rather than being absorbed without noticing. This is basically because the central image - the mythical Cretan labyrinth in which the Minotaur lived - is so dominant.

The plot of the novel hinges round an incredible archaeological discovery on Crete - a complex maze of caves containing ancient artefacts of very high quality; this is immediately hailed as the original of the labyrinth from the myth in the same way that the ancient Cretan culture has been labelled Minoan after the king in the same myth. A group of British tourists become lost in the dark cave after a rock fall kills their guide; they are (with one exception, a man who found his way out) believed dead.

From the symbolic point of view, it is clear that the labyrinth represents a spiritual or psychological crisis in the lives of these people, some sort of difficulty that they need to find their way through. (Thus the labyrinth has three meanings: a set of Cretan caves, the mythological haunt of the monster, and a psychological crisis.) What happens to each of them in the maze after the guide's death has its own allegorical significance, especially clear for the couple who find themselves in a garden of Eden, a lost world - a plateau inaccessible from the rest of the island except through the maze, inhabited only by an elderly British archaeologist who found her way there years previously (importantly, she has not even been aware of the Second World War, and so the plateau has a sense of innocence that has been lost to the world at large).

This is not a Christian allegory, of course. I say this not because the illustration of religious ideas is the most frequent and best known reason for the use of allegory in literature, but because Durrell explicitly uses Biblical images like Eden alongside pagan Greek myth. One of the points of the labyrinth experience is that each person has to work out their own way to return to the outside world, not follow one unique path - compare The Dark Labyrinth with The Pilgrim's Progress, where those who do not follow the correct route to the Celestial City never get there. In fact, Durrell seems to assume that all the ideas that help the trapped tourists escape are true, which may in some cases annoy people. He was clearly extremely interested in mysticism and unusual religious ideas (whether or not he actually believed in them), and spiritualism is treated extremely sympathetically (though less laughably than Arthur Conan Doyle's later Professor Challenger novels); in this novel, real mediums, spirit guides and contact with the dead all exist.

The lack of the subtlety which I would associate with the later work of Lawrence Durrell (and which makes him, to my mind, one of the greatest English novelists of the second half of the twentieth century) marks The Dark Labyrinth as an early attempt at the themes and ideas which fill his mature work. It is not, therefore, his best, but it is definitely of interest to fans of his writing.

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist (2004)

Edition: Orbit, 2004
Review number: 1304

Iain Banks latest is an addition to the growing list of his non-Culture science fiction, though it has the same flavour as those set in that universe. It is set far in the future, in a galaxy filled with many kinds of lifeforms. These are generally classified as either Quick (those who evolved mainly on rocky planets, including two kinds of humans) or Slow (those who live with much slower metabolisms who often developed in gas giants, which include the other major species we meet in The Algebraist, the Dwellers). The Dwellers are somewhat mysterious and incredibly long-lived beings (some individuals are older than entire races) who have a history dating back to very early in galactic history. They hardly communicate with members of other species, and those who are permitted to communicate with them, known as Seers, are often completely confused by what they are told, especially since the Dwellers are prone to jokes which mean that much of what they say can't be trusted. One persistent story which is widely disbelieved by the galaxy as a whole is that there is a key to a document known as the "Dweller List", which seems to describe a large number of portals (the instantaneous travel mechanism which makes Banks' galactic civilization possible), but which cannot be decoded.

The Dwellers seem to me to be the major conceptual link between The Algebraicist and the Culture novels. They take the insouciant, anarchic way of life of the Culture to an extreme. They are the highlights of the novel, the source of many humorous touches: they are the only aliens I have come across in the whole of the science fiction genre who are given convincing dialogue that is reminiscent of the tramps in Waiting for Godot.

The central character of the novel, Fassin Taak, is one of the most successful Seers, and it is he who brings back from one of his trips to the gas giant Nasqueron a work of literature which is later discovered to have a clue to the Dweller List hidden in an appendix. This is so important that it provokes an invasion of the planetary system by some really nasty villains, which in turn forces Taak to return to Nasqueron to try and persuade the Dwellers to give up the rest of the secret before the destruction of his home world.

The Algebraist is a fun novel, very enjoyable to read, though not really covering new ground for Banks despite the different setting. Indeed, it is now quite some time since Banks has produced anything as innovative as his early novels, and he is now apparently content to write polished variations on the themes that make up his mature style (perhaps this is something that can be said of most authors who have a career of any length). Maybe moving away from the Culture is an attempt to bring back some of the early originality, in which case it has not really succeeded. There are now of course many writers who have been influenced by Banks, particularly by his science fiction; The Algebraist reads in places almost like a novel by yet another admirer than by the man himself. Here we really have the novelist as craftsman rather than artist; very welcome, very satisfying, and only disappointing because the reader knows that Banks is capable of much more.

One very small point: when I studied mathematics, those who concentrated on algebra were known as "algebraicists" rather than "algebraists".