Friday 31 March 2000

Alan Dean Foster: Spellsinger (1983)

Edition: Orbit, 1984
Review number: 467

My memory of reading Spellsinger the first time, in my early teens, has left me with an impression of a rather better novel than is really the case. It is enjoyable, but distinctly unchallenging. It has one of the more annoying central characters in a fantasy novel (and, indeed, series) and though it sets up some potentially interesting situations, doesn't really resolve them or even use the tension which could quite easily be generated (for example, between Jon-Tom's desire to return home and his enjoyment of the clearly more interesting and fulfilling adventures he is having).

The plot is a humorous version of that staple of the fantasy genre, the normal Earth person who suddenly finds themselves in another world, where there is magic and where they are expected to be a saviour hero. (The sort of humour involved can be seen in this example: the summoning magician is searching through other worlds for an engineer, and finds student lawyer Jonathan Thomas Merriweather, who works in his vacations as a caretaker with the job title "sanitary engineer".)

Spellsinger fits comfortably into the tradition of non-satiric humorous fantasy which uses the absurdities of the conventional gestures of the genre to generate laughter. It is not up to the standards of the best of these stories (examples such as de Camp and Pratt's Incomplete Enchanter), but is enjoyable.

Salman Rushdie: Midnight's Children (1981)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1981
Review number: 466

Being born in Bombay at midnight (to the second) on August 15, 1947 makes Saleem Sinai a special child, for he comes into existence at precisely the moment of Indian and Pakistani independence. This fact has an obvious symbolic significance linking him to both countries, and he grows up having a life which mirrors the history of the two countries (and later three, after the separation of Bangladesh).

Like the other children born between midnight and one in that morning, Saleem has strange magic powers, stronger in him because his birth came so close to midnight. This amounts in him to the telepathic ability to tune into the thoughts of others, making him feel uniquely qualified as a chronicler of the history of the subcontinent following independence.

Rushdie's novel combines the realist, symbolic and magical in a unique way, and Midnight's Children is probably the best example of how he does it. Through the coalescence of Saleem's bizarre peronal history with the world around him, he is able to say something about what independence has meant to the three countries. Having something to say perhaps motivates the novel so that it is more effective than his later writing.

The roots of the magical realist style lie in science fiction and fantasy, yet it is difficult to point to any specific author as a direct influence. The idea of a hidden group with special powers is quite common (examples can be found in John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos and A.E. van Vogt's Slan), and a mundane world with magic in it is a commonplace of fantasy. The non-genre author of whom I was constantly reminded by Salim's autobiography is Lawrence Sterne; there are many echoes of Tristram Shandy. It is principally the style which is reminiscent of this book, but it is the way that the fantastic is blended in which makes possible Rushdie's blurring of the distinction between reality and metaphor, which in turn gives the novel the ability to make satiric points.

Thursday 30 March 2000

Michael Moorcock: The Steel Tsar (1981)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 465

The final Oswald Bastable novel is, unfortunately, the most disappointing of the three. In it, the hero once more finds himself involved in a cataclysmic war in an alternate universe. This time, the First World War hadn't happened, as Britain and Germany became allies while France declined as a power. Then Japanese imperialism, symbolised by the destruction of the modern showpiece of enlightened colonialism at Singapore, leads to war, and Bastable joins the Russian airship navy. (The success of airships is common to all the Bastable alternate histories.) There, he is imprisoned by the rebel leader Dugashvili, known as 'The Steel Tsar' (and of course, Stalin means steel and Stalin's real name was Dugashvili).

Neither the background nor the secondary characters are as
interesting or as convincing as in the previous novels. Dugashvili is a convenient evil megalomaniac, followed by others for their own ends or because they too are on the brink of insanity. He makes the plot rather two dimensional, unlike the far better (fictional) 'Black Atilla' character of The Land Leviathan.

Tuesday 28 March 2000

Alexander Kent: The Flag Captain (1971)

Edition: Hutchinson & Co, 1971
Review number: 463

It is inevitable that any novel written about the British navy in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century will be compared to Forester's Hornblower novels, to such an extent that endorsements of a novel saying that its hero rivals Hornblower are virtually meaningless. The genre is quite a narrow one, and Forester dominates it overwhelmingly.

Of the better known practitioners of this genre, Alexander Kent is perhaps the most like Forester and his hero Bolitho most like Hornblower. Patrick O'Brien has brought in a twist with the espionage in his novels; Dudley Pope has lightened the Ramage novels to the point of triviality. Bolitho is more heroic than Hornblower, yet his strengths to the modern reader are similar. Like Hornblower, for example, he finds the harsh punishments of the Navy at this time abhorrent; he possesses the ability to make brilliant strategic plans far beyond the grasp of his superiors and those around him; he rises quickly through the ranks despite the disapproval and incomprehension of hidebound superiors; he has the knack of inspiring devotion among those who server under him.

The tone is a little lighter than Hornblower, and Bolitho has an easier time of things (this may not be the case in the novel preceding this one, in which his beloved wife dies, but I have not read it). Worth reading if you like that sort of thing, Kent does not quite match up to the standard of Forester.

Anne Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 464

Anne Brontë's best known novel is much less famous than those of her sisters. It is easy to see why; though it contains much which is praiseworthy, its faults are far more obvious.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall starts with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, apparently a widow, at the nearly derelict, remote, Wildfell Hall. After inital antipathy, local farmer Gilbert Markham senses a growing attraction between Helen Graham and himself. She eventually feels that she needs to reveal her past to him, and gives him a diary covering her disastrous marriage to the alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon. Then she receives word that Huntingdon, from whom she had fled to safeguard her son, is dangerously ill, and returns to their marital home to nurse him.

The novel falls into three sections: the initial friendship between Helen Graham and Markham; the diary of the Huntingdon marriage; and the events following the reading of the diary by Markham. The major strength of the novel, also an important feature in the works of Anne's sisters, is the depiction of gradually changing emotion, particularly in this case Markham's changing attitude to Helen Graham. The diary section is also very powerful in evoking Helen's growing despair at her husband's descent into alcoholism. This, and Huntingdon's initial charm, are modelled on Anne's brother Branwell, and it is a sufficiently honest and unredeemed portrayal to have caused trouble between Anne and her sisters.

The weaknesses of the novel are more structural. It supposedly takes epistolary form, being a collection of letters sent by Markham to a friend. The problem is that it reads more like a (fairly) continuous narration than a series of letters, for a large number of reasons. Markham also reveals things to his friend which he has been asked to keep secret, and which he has not even passed on to his mother and sister. (He definitely desires to do so, because he wants to refute malicious gossip about Helen Graham which is passing round the neighbourhood.) We learn nothing about the friend to whom the letters are addressed, not even where he met Markham, and no one in Markham's circle seems to know him at all. (No information about other people is ever passed on except incidentally as part of the main story.) Markham never responds to anything written by his friend (whose letters are not included), and he never writes about anything which is not germane to the novel's plot, so we don't even know what interests Markham (other than good looking widows). The inclusion of the diary is a little strange, as there is no real way that it can be included among the letters. So Anne Brontë has to include it as though it were written out from memory, which is absurd (it forms over a hundred pages of the novel). She more or less abandons the idea of the letters at the point when the diary is introduced, by remarking that it should begin a new chapter. The diary itself suffers from similar weaknesses where its content does not fit its supposed form. It is confused, for example, about whether it is a diary written at the time of the events it records, or a commentary written much later. Remarks such as "I have found it much easier to remember her advice than to profit from it" imply the latter, while the external descriptions of the diary and its dated entries imply the former.

Though the reader is conscious of these defects while reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it remains an engrossing read. Its picture of the virtuous woman trapped by society in a marriage with a rapidly degenerating alcoholic is very powerful, particularly as the cruelty with which she is treated is principally mental stress rather than physical abuse.

Monday 27 March 2000

Anthony Powell: Books Do Furnish a Room (1971)

Edition: Heinemann, 1971
Review number: 462

The final, postwar, trilogy of A Dance to the Music of Time opens with Books Do Furnish a Room. Nick Jenkins returns to his literary endeavours by researching a book on Richard Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, at his old Cambridge college. However, he soon becomes involved in a left-wing publishing company, partly financed by Kenneth Widmerpool, now an MP in the new Labour government. He helps to run the short lived literary magazine Fission, whose editor's nickname forms the title of the novel (he once spoilt a seduction by being surprised by his surroundings into making this comment at a passionate moment).

Thw war seems to have changed relatively little in Nick Jenkins' world, though it had more effect on Widmerpool: much of the novel is taken up with the strange behaviour of his beautiful but neurotic wife Pamela, whom he married suddenly during the fighting.

Pamela Widmerpool adds a measure of interest to an otherwise rather dull group of characters, but I still find it hard to see the significance perceived in the series by so many critics of the time.

Friday 24 March 2000

Richard Zimler: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1998)

Edition: Arcadia, 1998
Review number: 461

In the early sixteenth century, Portugal was an extremely bad place to be a Jew. Enforced conversion a few years earlier had not reduced the level of persecution of New Christians, as they were now called. Instead, the Inquisition, active in Portugal in the same way as more famously in Spain, continually looked for evidence that Jewish religious practices were continuing. Then, famine in Lisbon sparked off riots, and hundreds of New Christians were killed in the belief that a Jewish sorcerer had caused the failure of the harvest.

This is the background against which Zimler's novel is set. Its protagonist, the teenage Berekiah Zarco, is apprenticed to his Jewish kabbalist book smuggler uncle. He finds the body of his uncle during the riot, yet it is soon clear that his death is not caused by the Old Christians: not only is he in the secret room in his home used as a refuge and a place to secretly carry out rituals, but his throat has been cut in the manner of a shohet, or kosher butcher. Berekiah has to investigate in the extremely dangerous atmosphere of Lisbon after the riot.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon must inevitably be compared with The Name of the Rose, as is done by the reviews quoted on the back cover. Both are medieval mystery stories with a literary twist. The comparison is reasonable, and shows that the standard against which Zimler's novel should be judged is high. However, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is nothing like as intellectual as Eco's writing, and the background is far less convincing. This is partly because of small factual errors - for example using a simile about a theatre building well before they reappeared in Europe - and the illiterate copy editing - "you're" for "your", "ascent" for "assent". These are only minor if irritating details, but the book as a whole is not able to hold the interest as well as Eco's. The terrible persecution which forms the background is made too impersonal; this is probably to make it possible for a detective story to take place in the foreground. The main use of the background is to give a reason why so many potential witnesses and suspects are missing or dead, and this trivialises the suffering of these people.

Thursday 23 March 2000

John Keegan: The Mask of Command (1987)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 460

The Mask of Command is a companion to Keegan's earlier book The Face of Battle, published just over a decade beforehand. That book dealt with battle as experienced by the common soldier, while The Mask of Command is about the nature of military leadership. They have the same structure, a general introduction and conclusion framing some case studies, here Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. The title indicates something of Keegan's attitude to command: he sees it as an art of persuasion related in some way to acting, involving hiding the true nature of the commander. The illustration chosen for the front of this edition fits well with this, though not related to any of the leaders mentioned; it is a photograph of the Sutton Hoo helmet, which hides the man inside it so that you cannot see his features. (The photograph shows the helmet unworn.) We do not even know precisely who the helmet was made for.

Keegan's analysis of each of his case studies hinges on the relationship between developing styles of leadership and the idea of the hero. Each subject reacted in a different way to this compared with the others, Alexander deliberately cultivating it, Wellington deprecating it, Grant ignoring it, and Hitler creating a propaganda version of it. These reactions, as well as saying something about the personalities of these men, also reflect the changing nature of warfare itself and the most efficient role to be taken by a general. (Keegan encapsulates this in the question "How frequently should the general be in the front line?" - always, sometimes, or never.)

The most interesting analyses are those of Alexander and Hitler; that of Wellington overlaps considerably with the description of Waterloo in The Face of Battle. Grant is perhaps less easily describe, a less extreme personality, and the study of his methods of leadership doesnot really take off.

The final philosophical section, which consists of an analysis of what command actually is, how one man can persuade others to risk their lives, together with an application of this theory to the idea of command in the nuclear age, is fascinating. (Keegan is fairly pessimistic, denying even the possibility of command in the age of "Mutually Assured Destruction", when the executive trying to persuade others to fight is of necessity one of the very few with any likelihood of survival.)

Though I disapprove of warfare, I find the reasons behind it and its methods fascinating, and Keegan's writing always seems to provide insights.

Wednesday 22 March 2000

Leslie Charteris: The Saint and Mr Teal (1933)

Alternative title: Once More the Saint
Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950
Review number: 459

The three stories in Once More the Saint include one of Charteris' best, one of his worst, and one pretty standard. The worst, The Gold Standard, is about a plot surrounding a scientist who has succeeded in realising the alchemist's dream, producing gold by chemical means. I suppose in 1933 the scientific impossibility of this was not so sure, but it was still hardly an original plot.

The Man From St Louis is one Tex Goldman, an American gangster who, failing to make it quite as big in the States as he desires, decides to bring Chicago-style organised crime to London. This is a more exciting story, and is interesting in the way it starts a train of thought which leads to Simon Templar facing these gangsters on their home territory, in The Saint in New York.

The best of the three stories, The Death Penalty, is set in the unlikely location of the Scilly Isles. There, Simon learns, two drugs barons are meeting to define the boundaries between their empires. The story is about the evil of drugs, and has one of the most unpleasant villains in any of the Saint stories. Abdul Osman uses drugs to gain revenge on those who ridiculed him as an Egyptian boy at an English public school - he is twisted by the racist abuse he received. The whole thing is remarkably modern, and could easily have been written in the seventies or eighties rather than the thirties. However, the motivation behind Charteris' story is more of its time. He seems to have come up with the idea while thinking about capital punishment, the way that one murder may not be anything like another, even though the punishment would be the same for a fight gone too far or a deliberate killing. (Of course, drug barons don't usually get prosecuted for murder - not having contact with their victims - so there is another level to this.)

Tuesday 21 March 2000

Peter O'Donnell: Modesty Blaise (1965)

Edition: Pan, 1966
Review number: 458

At one point, I had collected the first four or five Modesty Blaise novels, but I gradually found the increasingly unpleasant violence in the series to be not to my taste. When I packed them off to a charity shop, I retained the first one, on the grounds that it is a better novel and, though violent, less sickening.

The problem I have with Modesty Blaise on re-reading it today is not the violence, though some of its scenes are quite unpleasant. It is with its total lack of verisimilitude. The character of Modesty Blaise is unbelievable: impossibly gifted (her most serious defect is an indifferent palate for wine), unscarred by the traumatic childhood she endured. She was clearly intended as a female equivalent of James Bond, yet she lacks the imperfections of Bond's character and does not come over as even human. (Bond is superhuman in some ways, but his character is distinctly flawed - mostly in ways which suit him for the job he enjoys.) Of the various versions of Modesty Blaise (comic strip, novel series, and film) it is the comic strip version which is easily the best.

Terry Pratchett: The Last Continent (1998)

Edition: Doubleday, 1998
Review number: 457

In a note at the beginning of The Last Continent, Terry Pratchett says that it is not about Australia, just about somewhere "which happens to be, here and there, a bit ... Australian". In fact, the novel is set in a place which is an exaggerated stereotype of Australianness, with references to films such as Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Crocodile Dundee as well as lager drinking, hats with corks, dangerous spiders, aboriginal art, Sydney Opera House, backpackers - hundreds of references to the lazy non-Australian's picture of Australia. The possibility that offence could be taken is quite real, and is presumably the reason for the disclaimer. (Mind you, Barry Humphries has built an entire career on what seems to me a far more offensive and grossly unfunny portrayal of Australia.)

The Last Continent is quite amusing, but I never find the Discworld novels which relate so closely to the real world as funny as those which are more complete in themselves. (Examples of the first type include Soul Music and Moving Pictures, while the second is represented by Mort, Reaper Man and Witches Abroad among others.) There is not much of an edge to the satiric side of Pratchett's writing, as opposed to the parodic. His parodies of the fantasy genre can be extremely funny, but satire of the music industry or Hollywood is an excuse to throw in references to popular culture without actually having anything to say about it. He needs something of the sharpness of The Simpsons at its best.

Monday 20 March 2000

Richard Gordon: The Captain's Table (1954)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 1954
Review number: 456

Richard Gordon's big success was his Doctor series, most famously Doctor in the House. His first attempt to write a non-medical story was The Captain's Table, which I picked up after enjoying the Doctor books in my early teens. It is the story of William Ebbs, for many years captain of a freighter suddenly appointed to the command of his employer's flagship liner. His first cruise, from London to Sydney, is marked by a series of mishaps including quarreling missionaries, attempted seductions, blackmail and the children's party.

Unfortunately, The Captain's Table is dated and unfunny, none of the characters being more than lazy stereotypes. The Doctor series is much better, being based (at least initially) on Gordon's own experiences as a medical student (though I suspect that these too would now seem somewhat dated).

Friday 17 March 2000

Mary Stewart: Wildfire at Midnight (1956)

Edition: Crest
Review number: 454

A sense of place is important in many of Stewart's novels, particularly in the second, in which the brooding mountains of Skye form the backdrop to a story of Wicker Man-like ritual murder. Gianetta Drury is a model who goes to Scotland for a rest from the frenetic London fashion scene, only to find that her ex-husband is staying at the same hotel (recommended by her parents who want them to get back together). The week before her arrival, the body of a local girl has been found on the mountain, in circumstances pointing to one of the men staying at the hotel. Then one of the women staying there is killed, her climbing rope cut during an ascent of Blaven.

The suspense is manipulated in what is perhaps an overly obvious manner. Phrases like "Gianetta could sense that something awful was going to happen" recur. The question of the identity of the killer is an easy one to solve. The characters are conventional. Yet Wildfire at Midnight draws the reader in, and is an enjoyable light read.

John Cheever: The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

Edition: Vintage, 1957
Review number: 455

It took me a long time to get into The Wapshot Chronicle, the supposedly hilarious story of the old family of the Wapshots in their New England small town. Most of it I found not interesting enough to be funny; if you want a story of eccentric small town life from this period, turn to George Albee's By the Sea, By the Sea.

There are occasional amusing paragraphs, but it is not until near the end when I realised that the section about Moses Wapshot's married life was a parody of Henry James that I began to enjoy it more.

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)

Edition: Bibliomania, at
Review number: 453

WIlkie Collins is often cited, along with Conan Doyle and Poe, as one of the originators of the crime novel, and his best known tale is an excellent example shouwing why this is so. The moonstone is a famous diamond looted by British soldiers from a temple in India. When Rachel Verinder's uncle dies, he bequeaths the stone to her, either as a gesture of reconciliation with her side of the family, or to destroy her life through the curse placed on it when removed from the temple. On her twenty first birthday, when she receives the jewel, three strange Indians are seen in the vicinity of the Verinder country house; then, in the night, the jewel goes missing.

Though it seems obvious to all the characters that the Indians have taken the Moonstone, the mystery becomes complex as soon as they are discovered not to have it. The plot of The Moonstone is quite ingenious, though decidedly unfair on a modern reader - part of it relies on the legality of opium at the time, for example.There are elements which attack aspects of society in the Victorian period, in the style of Dickens: hypocritical piety is the main target, though evangelicalism is also ridiculed through the amiable Gabriel Betteredge. (He reveres Robinson Crusoe and uses it as his guide for life as many used the Bible.)

The Moonstone remains an exciting story, and its expert retelling will ensure that it continues to be read into the future.

Wednesday 15 March 2000

Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1765)

Edition: Penguin, 1972
Review number: 452

Until you read some Gothic novels, it may seem strange that they are not more popular today, as the origins of the modern horror genre and parts of science fiction and fantasy. Yet the only one which has consistently survived is Frankenstein, and it could certainly be argued that it is not really a Gothic novel. As popular literature, the Gothic novel reflected the tastes of the time, tastes which are not the same as ours today. (More recent popular writers, of whom Marie Corelli is perhaps the most obvious example, have disappeared from view for similar reasons.)

The Castle of Otranto is one of the first Gothic novels, formative of the genre. It is intended to read as though it were a medieval chronicle, though Walpole's idea of a medieval chronicle is as inauthentic as Walter Scott's idea of medieval dialogue. The story is of the supernatural downfall of the usurping counts of Otranto, followed by the restoration of the true dynasty. The castle is full of hidden passages and dungeons, though we never get any real sense of its geography; its importance is to be a stage for improbably events, not to be realistic in any way.

Tuesday 14 March 2000

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar (1969)

Edition: Arrow, 1971
Review number: 450

The most famous of Brunner's dystopian novels of the near future takes the overpopulation of the earth as its theme. The title comes from this: it was once said that the whole human race could stand on the Isle of Wight. This, Brunner says, may have been true in 1900 but by the time this novel was written, the Isle of Man would be needed instead, and by 2010 when it is set the seven billion people then living would fill the island of Zanzibar. (It is still quite conceivable that the population of the earth in 2010 will reach that figure, so Stand on Zanzibar is no less topical than it was thirty years ago.)

The world that Brunner depicts is disturbingly familiar. Set mainly in the US, Stand on Zanzibar features run down cities, lives dominated by television's holographic successor, vandalism, mass murders, random killings, and desperate unsafe neighbourhoods. A constant state of involvement in minor wars drains the economy - the novel was of course written during Vietnam. All these things are related to overpopulation, though the US has been lucky compared to parts of the third world where society has completely broken down.

It is the style of Stand on Zanzibar which is its most obvious feature. It is clearly derived from dos Passos' USA trilogy and Brunner went on to use variations of it in later novels. The table of contents reflects the structure with its division of the content into a variety of categories, such as "context", "close-ups" and "tracking". A large number of characters are dealt with briefly, the reader is presented with snippets of popular culture (song lyrics, excerpts from underground magazines, news programmes and so on), and comments from controversial, perceptive sociologist Chad Mulligan. Mulligan is perhaps the most important character, being used to argue the inevitability of the type of society portrayed in Stand on Zanzibar in an overpopulated world.

Compared particularly to The Sheep Look Up (a similar dystopia based around the theme of pollution), Stand on Zanzibar is a relatively optomistic novel. Its most chilling aspect is the sense that time is running out for the human race, which is provided by statements like "Around the coast of Zanzibar, thousands are now standing knee-deep".

Steven Saylor: Rubicon (1999)

Edition: Robinson, 1999
Review number: 451

In only seven novels together with a few short stories, Saylor has covered thirty years of the career of his detective, Gordianus the Finder, taking him into his sixties. This is quite rapid progress for a series of detective novels, which often have central characters who hardly age at all over thirty years' worth of writing. In Saylor's series, the character has been closely if sordidly involved in a datable sequence of historical events, which has forced him to age at a sensible rate. He is now reaching quite a formidable age for a Roman, and it will be interesting to see what Saylor does next.

Rubicon is concerned with the beginning of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, which would eventually lead to the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire. As Caesar crosses the Rubicon river into Italy with his troops - something a provincial general was forbidden to do - Rome succumbed to fear over his intentions, government and economy breaking down as thousands fled the city. Pompey also leaves, to organize his own troops, but pays a visit to Gordianus before doing so. He arrives at a rather awkward time, to discover the garrotted body of his nephew and heir Numerius Pompey in the garden. This naturally puts Gordianus in a difficult position, and he is forced to try to find the murderer.

This puzzle is quite difficult, but in fact much of the book is concerned with Gordianus' atttempts to rescue members of his family from the consequences of the civil war. Like all the Gordianus novels (I don't really like the Roma Sub Rosa title of the series), Roman politics is really what interests Saylor in Rubicon, and the puzzle takes a secondary place.

Monday 13 March 2000

Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1990)

Edition: Headline, 1991
Review number: 449

It is not surprising that Hyperion won awards. What is surprising, to me anyway, is that I have not read the novel before. It came out at a time when I was still avidly reading science fiction - I virtually stopped doing so for a few years in the mid-nineties, for a variety of reasons - and contains imaginative science fiction of a type I have always liked.

Hyperion is the story of an unusual pilgrimage, itself an unusual subject in these non-religious times. A new religion has grown up around bizarre artefacts on the planet Hyperion, the Time Tombs which are the mysterious products of a culture capable of manipulating time, and their guardian, the destructive Shrike against which no known technology can guard. To the Church of the Shrike, it is the avenging angel which will bring inevitable destruction to the human race, and devotees travel to Hyperion hoping that they will be "chosen" to die.

After centuries in which human culture has barely evolved, there are signs that things are about to change. At the same time as Hyperion comes under attack from the barbarian Outers, changes in the "time tides" which surround the Tombs warn the authorities that their temporal stasis is about to come to an end. The Shrike Church believe that this is the cur for it to be set free to destroy humanity, and choose seven people for the last pilgrimage to the Tombs.

Strangely enough, none of the chosen seven are Shrike Church believers, yet they all have odd connections with Hyperion and the Tombs. These connections produce the material forming the major part of the novel, as each in turn tells their story, producing a sort of science fiction Canterbury Tales. Each story is a novella-length tour de force, written in different styles to reflect their subject matter. Several have shocking denouements or a sense of psychological strain throughout, reminding the reader that Simmons was also well known as a horror writer. Each one is so well done as to leave you drained by its end, wondering how it can possibly be topped.

Thursday 9 March 2000

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Edition: Penguin, 1987
Review number: 448

The eventual fate of the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is common knowledge, but what drove her to the state of madness which forms the darkest theme in that famous romance? Jean Rhys' obsession with this question drove her to write Wide Sargasso Sea. It is not precisely what would now be called a 'prequel'; explicit links between the two novels are quite subtle. (The most obvious is that names of characters such as Grace Poole are shared.)

Set in Jamaica in the 1830s, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of a young woman, Antoinette Conway. When her family is ruined, as many plantation owners were, by the abolition of slavery, she is left to grow up entirely neglected, unacceptable both to the white community and to the former slaves living around the plantation. It is only when the family fortunes are restored after her mother makes a second marriage that she attends school. This upbringing and her disastrous relationship with her stepfather sow the seeds of Antoinette's strangeness, but it is not until her own marriage to a deeply conventional Englishman that his attempts to force her to live more like a young society woman begin to turn eccentricity into madness. She is completely trapped, for the law of the time meant that she would have no right to any property if she should leave him - it all passed absolutely to him on their marriage. (This is one of the themes of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Charlotte's sister Anne.)

Not as great as the novel which inspired it, Wide Sargasso Sea is an interesting and engrossing read. It depicts Antoinette's descent into madness in an unusual way; the book only really covers her lucid episodes, being principally written from her point of view, and so there are many gaps for which the only evidence for what has happened is what she is told by those around her.

Michael Innes: Carson's Conspiracy (1984)

Edition: Gollancz, 1984
Review number: 447

Carl Carson has made a fortune in dodgy dealing, and has bought himself a country house and gentility. The main disappointment in his life is the growing eccentricity of his life, who is reaching the point where her strangeness is becoming obvious even to relatively mild acquaintances. She is obsessed with the career of her son Robin, working in the States after graduating from Harvard - yet the Carsons have no children.

Things are not rosy on the business front, either; it looks as though Carson's ventures will soon fail or be exposed. He cannot get together the money to flee the country, which seems to be the only way out, without drawing unwelcome attention from the others involved in his schemes even if not the police. He is suddenly inspired with a plan which takes advantage of his wife's strangeness: he arranges a visit from his imaginary son, only to stage a kidnapping to enable him to have an excuse to gather his resources in cash.

The one thing that he hasn't reckoned with is, of course, the interest of his neighbour, retired policeman Sir John Appleby. There are still surprises in store right up to the end of this cleverly plotted story. It is not, perhaps, one of Innes' best, and is farfetched in places, but still well worth reading.

Friday 3 March 2000

Charles Dickens: David Copperfield (1850)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 446

David Copperfield is a novel which is often declared to be autobiographical, and almost as often declared to be nothing of the sort. It is easy to see why it seems to be about Dickens' own early life. Several scenes echo actual events, such as the way that David is sent to work as a child, though in each of the obvious instances there are differences (in the case mentioned, it is a different kind of work and for motives other than the poverty of Dickens' own childhood). Copperfield's career path as an adult (law, journalism, novel writing) is a particularly strong similarity. But these parallels are not the real reason why the assumption is made. David Copperfield is written as though it is an autobiography, a successful author telling the story of his early life. The persistence of the theory is a tribute to how convincing the first person narrator is made. The intimacy of the first person is another reason in itself, and is possibly also one reason why this was Dickens' own favourite amongst his novels.

Occasionally a little sentimental for my tastes (particularly in the sections dealing with Copperfield's childhood), David Copperfield also displays some infelicities in plotting. Several unmotivated coincidences occur, particularly in relationship to the Steerforth subplot. The most annoying character is Copperfield's "childwife" Dora, but she is at least intended to be annoying. (She is also part of the social commentary side of the novel. She is brought up spoilt and silly, and has a childish air which Copperfield finds charming in a lover. But the personality captivating in a fiancée is frustrating in a wife - she has neither the skills nor the aptitude to act as a housekeeper, the principal role of the mid-Victorian middle class wife without children. She has been brought up to be a toy, but expected to be able to instantly take on another role following her wedding day, and to point this out is a way that Dickens criticises the then contemporary attitude to women's education.) Re-reading this novel, a few years later, I wish to modify what I say here a little. Although Dora's faults are obvious, both to the reader and to Copperfield himself, his tenderness and genuine love for her come through strongly. Not only that, but others around her respond to her warmly. There is more to her than a pretty girl in a sickly-sweet Victorian painting, and the other characters' regard for her is tenderly depicted by Dickens in a way which tends to ameliorate the irritation that a reader would otherwise feel with someone so childish. The main reason for being irritated is more because of David Copperfield's action in falling for her - he is so clearly better suited for Agnes Wickfield, who adores him.

In general, though, the minor characters are among the best in all of Dickens' novels. Mr Micawber is the most famous, of course, but Uriah Heep, David's aunt, the Peggotty family, and Tommy Traddles among many others are amusing and vivid in the same manner without threatening to overpower the rest of the narrative.

Thursday 2 March 2000

Michael Moorcock: The Land Leviathan (1974)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 445

As in the Jerry Cornelius novels, each of the Oswald Bastable series is set in a different world, an alternative vision of contemporary society. (This is accomplished by twisting a standard plot element of science fiction so that instead of time travel to different dates, Bastable travels to the same date each time with a different history connecting it to his origins in 1903.) The similarity with the Cornelius novels is increased by the way in which he meets the same characters each time, some of whom even being shared with the earlier series.

The premise behind the alternative history in this novel is that an inventive genius came up with a totally new power source in the early years of the twentieth century, and that the technological revolution which followed brought prosperity across the Earth. Through the short sightedness of governments, this lead to a massive wave of nationalism, and a series of totally destructive wars in which biological weapons almost brought the downfall of civilisation. Bastable arrives as the terrible plagues die down in Europe, and witnesses the expansion of an anti-colonial African empire, led by a man known as the "Black Atilla", determined to wreak revenge for the racism he encountered as a young man.

One of Moorcock's most pessimistic novels, The Land Leviathan makes strong points about racism and nationalism, even if in a somewhat exaggerated manner.