Friday 30 May 2003

James Branch Cabell: The Silver Stallion (1926)

Edition: Unwin, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1163

Many readers of fantasy today basically assume that it is a genre which originated with J.R.R. Tolkien; this is not at all the case, and the best of the earlier writing is, in my opinion, well worth resurrecting. James Branch Cabell is today almost completely unknown, even with the occasional cheap reprint in some "fantasy classics" series, and he has a charm and humour almost totally lacking in most post-Tolkien fantasy. In the second half of the twenties, he wrote a loosely connected trilogy set in the kingdom of Poictesme, of which this is the second. It was attacked at the time as blasphemous and indecent, two charges which would hardly be made today even though it is still just about possible to understand why people reacted in this way.

The Silver Stallion is the best of the volumes in the trilogy. Figures of Earth lacks the ingredients which mark out The Silver Stallion from just about every other fantasy novels, and Jurgen sometimes reads as though Cabell is trying too hard to shock the reader. The reason this novel is different is that it is about what happens after the end of the quest, during the living "happily every after". It starts with the death of Dom Manuel, central character (if not exactly hero) of Figures of Earth. The fellowship of nine companions who fought under the banner of the Silver Stallion ("rampant in every member") is disbanded, and his widow sets about turning his reputation as the liberator of Poictesme into that of a national saviour and redeemer, sort of a cross between Christ and King Arthur. (It is Cabell's appropriation of Christian ideas and even Biblical quotations to his manifestly false redeemer and in particular what is said about the survival of any religion in Part IX which provoked the charge of blasphemy.) The Silver Stallion is about both how the cult of Dom Manuel becomes established and the ageing of his former companions. These nine men find it hard to fit in with the changes in Poictesme, partly because they remember better than anyone else what Dom Manuel was really like, and partly because they miss the old days of fighting and wenching.

The them of the ageing heroes makes The Silver Stallion pretty unusual in the fantasy genre, even today. (In this era of debunked heroes, fantasy has generally continued to depict the old fashioned superhuman goodies.) The closest parallels I can think of are the world weariness of some of Michael Moorcock's heroes, the character of the aged Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings and Cohen the Barbarian, who has a minor role in several of the Discworld novels. Reading the novel reveals, however, that stylistically Cabell is not like these authors stylistically, reminding me instead of L. Sprague de Camp and Tom Holt. It is a pity that Cabell is not still widely known, and this trilogy at least is well worth seeking out.

Wednesday 28 May 2003

Will Ferguson: Happiness TM (2001)

Edition: Canongate, 2002
Review number: 1162

It is easy to ridicule the self help book; every Christmas parodies just as forgettable as their subjects appear to take advantage of the seasonal sales of humour before disappearing in their turn. Happiness TM (a great improvement on the original title) is not this kind of parody; instead, it is a novel about a self help book.

The central character, Edwin de Vallu, works as an editor in a soulless American publishing house. He is in charge of their self help line, and a disastrous editorial meeting leads him to praise a manuscript from the slush pile, written by one Tupak Soiree who claims to have based it on years of meditation on a Tibetan mountain top. To Edwin it reads as though it is a disorganised mixture of bits of other similar books, but when it is finally published, something amazing happens - everything in it works. The methods for losing weight, improving your sex life, giving up smoking, becoming rich and so on all succeed, and when Edwin discovers this he also realises that What I Learned on the Mountain is evil: it turns the whole of America into a nation of happy, brainwashed idiots.

The humour in Happiness TM has three fertile sources, in the main: the absurdities of office life and the publishing industry in particular; the fatuities of the self help book; and Edwin's unlikely quest to save the world. All of these provided moments which made me laugh out loud, and yet between them Ferguson has something to say about why people are so keen to read self help books. Edwin, though a ridiculous character, is one whom the reader comes to care about, which gives more depth to the novel than would otherwise be the case.

Friday 23 May 2003

Val Gielgud and Holt Marshall: Death at Broadcasting House (1934)

Edition: Chivers Press, 1992 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1161

Throughout the twentieth century, crime novels with unusual settings or backgrounds have been consistently popular with both authors and readers, offering something a bit different to stimulate the imagination. (Dorothy Sayers wrote some particularly well known examples.) Death at Broadcasting House is in this tradition, being about the murder of an actor during the production of a BBC radio play in the thirties. (That is when this novel first appeared, but this edition is no more specific about the date than that.) The writers both worked for the BBC at the time (and, yes, Val Gielgud was John's brother), and so the background is described from a position of understanding rather than being learned for the purpose of writing the novel.

An actor has a part in a radio play which ends with a death scene played alone in a seventh floor studio of Broadcasting House. Initially, the producer thinks he has performed better than in any rehearsal but then it is discovered that he was killed at the moment of his character's death, so that there are millions of witnesses to the killing (radio plays being performed live in those days). The police are lucky that the performance was recorded at all (it was to be re-transmitted on the "Empire wavelength" that later became the World Service). The question of who the murderer is amounts to a whittling down of the fairly short list of people who might have had the opportunity to kill the actor. The police investigation is constantly being second-guessed by the attempts of some of the suspects to play amateur detective, something which provides amusement (as Inspector Spears repeats yet again that he thought of the most recent suggestion already) and is almost certainly more true to life than the majority of crime novels in this respect.

A lot of the charm of Death at Broadcasting House comes from its period quality. It is full of references to obsolete equipment (the Blattnerphone, for example) and working methods (no one would be likely to broadcast a play live today). Occasionally, it seems like a spoof of itself, containing phrases which would now only be found in a parody - the chapter heading "Topsy does her bit", for example. Sometimes elements jar on the modern reader, as when the narrative demonstrates the seediness of a bar by describing it as "frequented by negroes and tarts", but generally it fascinates. The puzzle is not really difficult, though it is fairly well constructed.

Tuesday 20 May 2003

Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)

Edition: Orbit, 1988
Review number: 1160

Despite the literary origins of its title, from The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, the first of Banks' Culture novels is his least sophisticated. It is set in a war between the Culture and another major galactic power, the Idirans; even though most of the characters are either neutral or on the Idiran side, Banks' interest and sympathy clearly lie with the Culture. The central character is a Changer named Horza, member of a genetically engineered race who can counterfeit the appearance and mannerisms of humans - clearly based on the Face Dancers of Frank Herbert's Dune series. At the beginning of the novel, he is about to be executed by drowning in a sewer, but is able to escape to take on a mission to travel to the planet Schar's World to try to find a Culture Mind (one of the artificial intelligences which run Culture society) which escaped seemingly certain destruction to take refuge there. For Schar's World is a monument, a commemoration of its native people who destroyed themselves in a holocaust, and it is conserved by a guardian who is very choosy about who is allowed in. Horza has already been there, and so the Idirans hope he will be permitted to land again.

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction which has had mixed fortunes over the years, often being derided for overblown and ludicrous scenarios and unbelievably heroic central characters. Banks is one of the authors involved in attempts to revive space opera from the late eighties onwards, seeking to add more literary ideas while taking advantage of one of the genre's richest collections of standard ideas and the immense grandeur of scale offered by such fiction. In each Culture novel, certain ideas from the sub-genre are re-used; in this case, huge empires of worlds, linked by faster than light travel, and the quest for some object of tactical significance (many space operas use military scenarios). The main change from older works by authors such as E. E. "Doc" Smith is that Horza is in no sense a heroic figure. In fact, his quest for the mind is more a series of disasters than the traditional crescendo of successes, and the main superhuman aspect of his character is his ability to survive these debacles. (Such changes would form an ideal part of a parody, but Consider Phlebas appears to be more serious in intent than that.)

The novel never really grabs the reader, unlike the space opera it is based on (which tends to emphasise excitement given a sufficient readiness to suspend disbelief) or the later Culture novels. It has some nice touches; the nature of space opera and the fact that a large proportion of the Culture's population is human leads the reader to make the assumption that it is an Earth-derived civilisation, but then the appendix reveals that the events described took place in our thirteenth century - Earth humanity is clearly a less developed offshoot of the species in Banks' scenario. This detail seems quite a neat if slightly contrived subversion of the genre. It is also the only clear piece of humour in Consider Phlebas, which is really the most po-faced of Banks' novels, and that makes it a much less interesting read. Banks turns the genre around, but here doesn't offer a convincing alternative.

Friday 16 May 2003

Sylvia Brownrigg: Pages for You (2001)

Edition: Picador, 2002
Review number: 1159

It is a commonplace of student life to arrive at university and fall in love (something which is at least partly due to the new sense of freedom which comes from relative independence). In Brownrigg's novel, the main character Flannery Jansen is rather surprised to find that the passion she develops is for another woman, a graduate teacher of critical theory in the university. The courtship is the best part of the novel, a clumsy and embarrassed dance which will be familiar to anyone who has ever felt unsure of themselves socially. It is not really surprising that it turns out to be literature which finally brings Flannery and Anne together, when Flannery gives her a book of poetry with significant pages marked.

The course of the relationship between Anne and Flannery, from beginning to end, is (on the surface) the subject of the novel. The title, and some clues within the narrative (such as their ability to maintain a passionate relationship over several months without their friends' knowledge) suggest that something else might be going on: that the whole story is Flannery's fantasy about what might happen. The narrative is structured to give the impression that someone scribbled down a page or so in an exercise book each day; the chapters are mainly only a page or so long. (Leaving the rest of the side blank after each makes this really quite short novel seem a bit longer, but it is still quite a small paperback.)

Brownrigg only really hints at this ironic possibility, and it has little effect on the reader's enjoyment of Pages for You. This is based around the characterisation of Flannery, which is likely to evoke nostalgia in anyone who has been a student. The plot is simple, and the individual chapters (or pages) poetic in style, worth savouring slowly. Reading Pages for You is then an extremely enjoyable experience.

John le Carré: Single and Single (1999)

Edition: Coronet, 2000
Review number: 1158

Oliver Single begins a promising career in the legal department of his father's banking company, only to gradually realise that its fortunes rest on the laundering of money for organised crime. As the company's biggest partnership, with "entrepeneurs" in the disintegrating Soviet Union, takes shape, Oliver makes the fateful decision to betray his father to the authorities. This part of the story is told in flashback; the main plot of Single and Single is about what happens when Oliver's father tracks him down in his new identity supplied by the security services following the murder of one of the bank's employees by the Russians.

Single and Single is not the only le Carré novel to revolve around a complex father-son relationship; in this respect, as in tone and structure, it is reminiscent of The Secret Pilgrim. The moral ambiguity of the characters is also, of course, a trademark of le Carré, and, as in The Secret Pilgrim the imperfections of both father and son fuel not just their relationship but the whole novel. However, Single and Single is prevented from being among the better le Carré novels because its long flashback is not really very well executed; compared to the main plot, it is dull and unconvincing. The Constant Gardener is the best of le Carré's latest phase, leaving this as worth reading for fans.

Saturday 10 May 2003

Michael Moorcock: The Revenge of the Rose (1991)

Edition: Orion, 1997
Review number: 1157

The longest and most recent Elric story, The Revenge of the Rose is much more complex than the earlier books featuring this hero. Like most of them, it reflects Moorcock's concerns at the time of writing, and is much more literary in flavour as were the other novels he wrote around this time. It takes the same familiar fantasy genre form as the others in this particular omnibus (they are all quests), but it has a twist.

The plot stems from a Hamlet-like meeting between Elric and the ghost of his father, who commissions him to recover his soul, taken by a trio of warrior sisters. This quest is part of a power struggle between two Lords of Chaos, one of whom is Elric's patron Duke Arioch, and takes place across several planes of the multiverse (these elements coming from the common background to all the Eternal Champion stories). He joins together with a group of characters from these planes, including the fictional Victorian poet Wheldrake, who appears in several Moorcock novels, and, most interesting, a bizarre family of psychics who are wandering the multiverse. (The character from this family, Mother Phatt, bears a striking resemblance to how one imagines Jerry Cornelius' mother would become if she went senile.)

The most interesting part of the novel is the first, which takes place mostly in the fascinating Gypsy Nation. The background to this section, with its rolling cities, must be one of the most unusual in the fantasy genre. The rest of the novel seems to pale by comparison, but this section alone would make it worth reading. I've never really been a fan of the Elric stories, which seem to me to lie at the most hackneyed end of Moorcock's writing; but The Revenge of the Rose is the one which I would choose as the best of them.

Thursday 8 May 2003

Laurell K. Hamilton: A Kiss of Shadows (2000)

Edition: Bantam, 2001
Review number: 1156

I have for some time been a slightly guilty fan of Hamilton's Anita Blake series (the guilt from the feeling that I shouldn't enjoy something as violent where the violence is quite sexual and the sex quite violent as much as I do). Kiss of Shadows is rather more serious as a fantasy novel, while it has similarities to Hamilton's earlier work.

The setting of Kiss of Shadows is basically the modern world, except that Celtic folk myth is true, and so there really are creatures such as brownies and pixies, but, most importantly, the Sidhe are real. The main focus of the novel is on their politics and relationship with humanity, to whom they are glamourous and dangerous. The central character and narrator is a Sidhe princess, not particularly gifted with magic by her people's standards, who has deserted the court to avoid her cousin's assassination attempts, and who is working secretly as a private detective in Los Angeles (a place where the amount of steel around in skyscrapers makes it difficult to track her down magically).

I tend to rather like books which marry magic and technology; here, because of its current setting, the technology is basically taken for granted. (The main aspects of modern culture which affect Meredith are things like paparazzi interest in Sidhe royalty.) There are obvious similarities with the background of the Anita Black novels, which is also the modern world plus magical elements, there vampires, werewolves and zombies; and it is likely that a fan of these books will enjoy Kiss of Shadows as well. (There are other similarities, including aspects of the characters and the tone used by the narrators.) Hamilton is adept at blending her two worlds, and while perhaps not the most significant piece of fantasy, Kiss of Shadows is exciting and enjoyable.

Thursday 1 May 2003

Leslie Charteris: Meet the Tiger (1927)

Alternative title: The Saint Meets the Tiger (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Ward, Lock & Co., 1927
Review number: 1154

Before changing publishers to Hodder and Stoughton, a move which coincided with his writing career suddenly taking off, Leslie Charteris wrote about half a dozen thrillers for Ward, Lock & Co. Meet the Tiger is one of these, and is a Saint book, written three or four years before the novel which Hodder designated as the first in that long series, Enter the Saint. It's gone on to be comparatively forgotten ever since, with fewer reprints making it harder to track down. (I've been collecting Leslie Charteris for about twenty years, and this was the first copy I'd ever seen.)

Meet the Tiger derives much of its character from the juxtaposition of two widely separate worlds: the Chicago gangster culture and a sleepy, tiny Devon fishing village (these were the days before mass car ownership brought tourism to such picturesque settings). The Saint has come to Baynscombe on the trail of a massive hoard of stolen bullion, but has to work out which of the village characters are members of the Tiger's gang (known as the Cubs) and, most importantly, who is the Tiger himself. The situation is complicated by his first meeting with Patricia Holm, destined to be a part of many of the novels which eventually followed.

The most interesting question any Saint fan has about Meet the Tiger is how the series characters in their earliest manifestation match up with their later versions. (As well as Simon Templar and Patricia Holm, Meet the Tiger also introduces the Saint's manservant, Orace.) In fact, there is not all that much difference; the facetiae are not quite as polished and lighthearted, and it would be odd to describe the later Saint as "inexperienced with women". Orace is given a big part, in contrast to the way that he later fades into the background as other sidekicks come along. Patricia is much the same, the beautiful young woman who is nearly as competent an adventurer as Simon; it is nice to read the story of their original meeting at last.

It is in the plotting that Charteris shows his inexperience, a flaw which Meet the Tiger shares with the other pre-Hodder books that I have read. Like many thirties thriller writers, Charteris consistently shows a liking for the fantastic - incredible disguises, villains leading double lives as respectable citizens, and so on. Later on, he can make it seem believable (The Saint in New York being an outstanding example), but here the creakiness of the plot is quite clear.

Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)

Edition: Futura, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1153

Out of all the editions of all the books I have ever read, the second and later printings of Iain Banks' first novel remain unique as far as I can remember for at least one reason. It is of course common to put good reviews on display, but here some of the really bad notices received by The Wasp Factory are also reprinted. The common feature they all share is a passionate response to the novel, which even after two decades (and on a third or fourth reading) is not one to be read with total equanimity.

Since 1984, Iain Banks has become established as one of Britain's most important novelists of his generation, and combines critical acclaim with a loyal cult following through his engagement with the science fiction genre. Reviewers of his writing today are inevitably going to be really careful before panning one of his novels. More importantly, though, The Wasp Factory seems far tamer and less controversial now, post Quentin Tarantino (among others). The extreme violence has become almost commonplace, and is no longer restricted to the grimmer types of genre novels. (It seems that what was shocking in The Wasp Factory was the presence of such violence in a novel with obvious literary pretensions.)

The narrator of the novel, Frank Cauldhame, has at sixteen settled into a bizarre existence on the small Scottish island owned by his reclusive father. His life there is a strange combination of unpleasant rituals of his own invention; these are designed to proclaim and extend his supremacy over the animals living on the island and to protect him against the outside world. Their centrepiece is the eponymous Wasp Factory, a monumental clock face rescued from the local town (just over a causeway on the mainland) dump which now has traps installed behind each numeral; a wasp is introduced into the hole at the centre and Frank uses the random death "chosen" by the wasp to predict the future. The story begins as Frank and his father receive a warning that Frank's elder brother Eric has escaped from a secure mental hospital, to which he had been committed after incidents including setting fire to dogs and forcing local children to eat worms. Eric's gradual approach to the island defines the duration of the novel and creates its suspense.

The effect of The Wasp Factory's violence on the reader is not just ameliorated by the time that has passed since publication. Because Frank's actions are mainly part of rituals, Banks is able to make him feel most of the time that what he does is regrettable though necessary (which affects our perception too, as he is the narrator). It is also invested by Banks with a kind of fantasy air, the unreality coming from the religious air which surrounds his actions when they are rituals or their flagrant unbelievability when they are not (as in the case of the rabbit attack, for instance). The most disturbing scene is the flashback to the experience which pushed Eric over the edge of insanity, and it is told in a much more straightforward style than the descriptions of Frank's activities. One thing is certain, and that is that The Wasp Factory never descends to the level of violence as pornography; everything which happends in the novel has its part to play. It is a lesson by which some more recent science fiction writers could benefit.

The Wasp Factory is neither as great nor as sordid as its quoted reviews imply. As a debut, it showed that Banks was a gifted writer, and most of his subsequent work has of course confirmed this. It is not by any means a fun read, but remains fascinating.