Thursday, 30 November 2006

Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith (2006)

Published: Doubleday, 2006

This is the third of Terry Pratchett's stories about young witch Tiffany Aching, aimed at a younger readership than the main Discworld novels, with which they share a setting and several characters. This time, she interrupts a ritual in the forest in midwinter, and by doing so attracts the romantic attention of the Wintersmith, the elemental being who personifies the season. While it is flattering to have all the snow fall in flakes which shaped like your profile, having giant iceberg statues killing hundreds of sailors is not so enjoyable. And, worst of all, Tiffany accidentally took the place of the Summer Lady in the dance, and the seasons become so messed up that this winter might never end.

The plot is simple, and hardly original (with echoes of the Greek myth of Persephone at the far reaches of its ancestry). But that is not the point. Wintersmith is entertaining, funny and would cheer anyone up, no matter what age they are. There is not as much in it as Pratchett includes in the main Discworld stories, presumably to cater to the younger readers. In particular, there is virtually none of the parodic references to our own culture that are the source of a lot of the humour of the adult novels, and instead something of an emphasis on lessons to be learned while growing up. I found the latter a little too obvious, but then I am about three times the target age.

As I said, this is the third young adult novel centring on Tiffany Aching, and it gives away some of the plots of the first two, though not too seriously. It would be better to read them in sequence (starting with The Wee Free Men), but not essential. This is a book which would make an ideal Christmas present for a thirteen year old who reads, such as a Harry Potter fan waiting for the final book to appear.

Friday, 17 November 2006

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian (2005)

Published: Little, Brown & Co, 2005

Bram Stoker's Dracula kick-started a craze for vampires that has grown and grown over the years, inspiring hundreds of novels, films and TV series. Of course, the Gothic genre was popular for over a century before Stoker, including the odd vampire story (such as Polidori's The Vampyre, created at the same storytelling session as Frankenstein), but there is something about Dracula in particular which really caught the imagination of the modern world. The attraction is obviously the combination of glamour and danger, and altering the relative amounts of these two ingredients makes a huge variety of treatments possible for the aspiring author, from chick lit spoof (MaryJanice Davidson) to serious horror (Bram Stoker himself).

As you will have gathered from these ruminations, The Historian is yet another vampire novel. In fact, it is the most literary vampire novel that I know. It also owes more of a debt to Stoker than to Hollywood, which is quite unusual.

The story centres around a sixties history student at an American university. He is working on his thesis on seventeenth century Dutch trade when he finds a book that he doesn't recognise among the materials in his library carrel. Obviously old, its pages are blank except for the centre ones, where there was a woodcut illustration of an attacking dragon, with the caption 'DRAKULYA'. He takes the book to his supervisor, only to discover that he had found an identical book in mysterious circumstances a generation earlier. The story continues with parallel accounts of investigations carried out by each of them following their discoveries of the books, together with those of the student's daughter, another generation later.

The only major weakness in The Historian stems from this parallel structure: when I was tired I found it confusing, a little difficult to work out which investigation was the subject of a paragraph, at least until I got far enough into the book to become familiar with the characters. Some effort is made to differentiate the narratives typographically, but because they are all in the first person and the difference between the father's and daughter's paragraphs is an initial ", it is possible to miss which of them is speaking.

By setting on of the stories during the Cold War, Kostova is able to naturally introduce elements of the spy thriller, for travel backwards and forwards across the Iron Curtain to Transylvania is difficult, particularly for an American citizen. (This parallels the difficulty of access to Eastern Europe in Bram Stoker's novel, though that is due to the remoteness of the area from the railway network.) It is disconcerting to see the maps of "Cold War Europe" inside this edition's covers: so recent, yet already treated like an unfamiliar period to set a historical novel. Most of my life was during the Cold War - surely I'm not that old yet!

Their journey around Europe in search of information about Vlad the Impaler (the medieval prince who inspired the original Dracula myth) makes The Historian an academic thriller rather like Umberto Eco's early novels. That is the comparison that strikes me on reading this novel - and proves that I really enjoyed it, for the first two novels by Eco are among my favourites, even though I have been unable to finish any of his later work.

While slow for a thriller, The Historian is atmospheric, and in its evocation of the ancient evil of Dracula an acheivment comparable to Stoker's own (lessened of course by the long tradition Kostova had to build on in comparison with the earlier author). This is one of those d├ębuts that announces a writer who is well worth watching out for in the future.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Dan Simmons: Olympos (2005)

Published: Gollancz 2005

Like The House of Storms just reviewed, Olympos is the sequel to a favourite science fiction/fantasy novel of mine from the last few years; in this case, to Ilium. Unlike The House of Storms, Olympos is a continuation of the earlier novel: very much a traditional sequel. From the start it is clearly going to wrap up the many loose ends of the earlier novel. (This wrapping up extends to the last paragraph of Olympos, which is virtually identical to the last paragraph of Ilium; both are translations of the opening of Homer's Iliad, though from slightly different points of view.)

Since Olympos follow on directly from Ilium, the plot is hard to describe without revealing details which might spoil Ilium for those who have not yet read it. (Though like much science fiction and fantasy, there are many other pleasures in the novel other than the plot.) War continues in the recreated Troy, where post-humans take the place of the gods of Greek mythology and run a simulation of the events described in the Iliad.

This is the main point of both novels. The theory that post-humans will get the most fun out of running simulations so perfect that to the participants it will be like resurrection in heaven is not very convincing and has struck me ever since I first heard it as wishful thinking, a desire by somewhat sentimental atheists to replace Christian ideas of heaven. There should be so many more interesting things to do than pandering to an obsession with the history of far more limited individuals. Personal interactions with other post-humans, investigation of the universe, simulations which are entirely new and alien: these seem to me to be three obvious possibilities. Simmons paints a more believable post-human, a race that has retained many of the less pleasant facets of humanity, with the desire to play cruel and capricious deities the reason for running a simulation. (Imagine what it would be like to be a simulated character in many of today's computer games.) All the post-humans in these two novels are unpleasant, mad or alien; it is only the resurrected humans and the descendants of human beings genetically engineered to live in the outer solar system that are anything approaching sympathetic. Like the idea of entirely benevolent beings, this is surely an over-simplification. If post-humans ever come to exist, they may be in some part incomprehensible to us, but they will surely be at least as varied as personalities. There may be some backing for Simmons' scenario in the idea that power corrupts, but the lack of nice, stable post-humans is for me a weakness in his vision.

Ilium made an impact - being hailed as "a landmark in modern SF" on the cover of this edition of Olympos - by being different and innovative. Since its sequel cannot match these qualities of the original by definition, it is hard to feel that Olympos is as good. It is well written and, of course, fans of Ilium will be keen to see how things turn out.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Ian R. MacLeod: The House of Storms (2005)

Published by Pocket Books, 2006

The follow-up to the wonderful The Light Ages, The House of Storms revisits the same world a century or so later.

The plot describes the machinations of Guildsmistress Alice Meynell, whose pursuit of personal power at any cost eventually leads to a terrible civil war between the east and west of England. This is not the confrontation between king and parliament which happened in the real world, which is now remote enough that it has been romanticised, but a horrific, draining conflict clearly modelled on the Western Front in the First World War.

One of the typical plots of the fantasy genre - which reflects the appeal it has to the adolescent audience - is the underhand "bad guy" adult being opposed and beaten by young teens. The House of Storms looks as though it might follow this storyline, as the first part of the novel describes a love affair between Alice's son Ralph and one of the maids at the house of the title, Invercombe near Bristol where Ralph travels to recuperate from an illness. However (to return to the point), MacLeod decides to reveal the unlikelihood of the standard plot, as Alice easily defeats their plans to flee to the Fortunate Isles; it is only realistic for experience and duplicity to overcome naivety. This leads straight to the strange second part, much of which is told from the point of view of a new character. He is a boy growing up in Einfell, the sanctuary for those whose humanity has been destroyed by over-exposure to aether, the raw material of magic. This was for me reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, though not quite at the level acheived in that classic novel.

While The House of Storms is clearly a cleverly conceived and well written fantasy novel, it is not really as readable as The Light Ages. For this, the easy victory given Alice Meynell already mentioned is partly to blame, for it exposes the insipidity of Ralph and Marion as characters with whom the reader is meant to identity: the other main characters are too ruthless (Alice) or strange (Klade). It invites re-reading, though, and doing so is rewarding. The first time through, though, I found it hard to spend more than five minutes reading the novel without putting it down and taking a break. If you want a cute and fluffy, easy read, then The House of Storms is not for you; but for those who want something deeper, especially those who enjoyed The Light Ages, it is well worth making the effort.

Starting New Book Blog

This is the first post as a blog of my book review site. It's been running since 1998, and has over 1300 book reviews. Since blogging became popular, I've realised that this site is basically a blog: so I'm now going to start keeping new updates as a blog. This might encourage me to make entries more frequently: from one a day, the rate has gone down to less than one a month.

The site has now had over 3/4 million visitors (according to Geocities stats, which don't go back to the beginning of the site), so I don't want to just abandon it. So I'll be updating the review listings with links to the blog as I post them.