Archive for June, 2012

Joe Abercrombie – The Heroes

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

My first post and review was Joe Abercrombie‘s previous novel Best Served Cold. Now, 200 posts later, I review his next novel The Heroes (2010). It is a standalone sequel to the above mentioned novel while also being a sequel to The First Law trilogy. Abercrombie introduces many new characters while a fair number of earlier characters return to the scene. This creates the more familiar setting as the story itself is standalone enough to be taking place anywhere. Previous knowledge is not really required.

Perhaps inspired by other authors using a similar concept, Abercrombie decided to try something different. The story focuses on one event, a battle, taking place over several days. In it he has selected several viewpoints from different sides. Some viewpoints are from important characters, others from minor characters. He also picked them to be able to provide sufficient attention to the different details of the events of the days that take up the event. In effect the general plot is not that complicated, but by creating so many different storylines he creates a thrilling story that never bores. He plays with several small themes. He keeps thing low to earth, recognizable while still allowing the great character of the universe he has created to shine through, with his typical small surprises and gritty action with humoristic moments when he can add them.

Abercrombie uses the different storylines to great effect. Aiming and achieving character development for all his main characters within this short period of time. It is an event, so it is not strange that it will have a strong effect on them. The characters themselves are very distinct and far from cliché.

Abercrombie pretty much manages to avoid them even though the risk of doing so is easy. Writing about a single battle taking place over several days is not something original. The outcome has limited possibilities, so it all depends on the smaller character storylines that fill up this event. So this novel all depends on its characters and it is there that Abercrombie delivers. So well that this novel with a rather simple plot is a large one. Abercrombie uses everything he can think of to expand it into a great weave that will grab the reader and not let go.

So how to rate this novel? The previous novels were better in the sense of the general plot. This is unavoidable as this novel contains only one major event that could have been a minor event in those other novels. In the matter of details The Heroes manages to shine more strongly. In the end however, the impact is less. It is a great novel, a must read and a great addition to the existing universe. A succesfull experiment, but lacking in giving significant progress to the greater plot. Either way, highly recommended.

Umberto Eco – The Prague Cemetary

Monday, June 4th, 2012

With my 200th post I have reached another small milestone. It has taken less than 2 years to get here. Not too bad I say.

Umberto Eco is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Foucault’s Pendulum. Because of this I am always interested in his work in the hope that he can achieve a greatness similar to that book. Sadly the books he wrote after Foucault’s Pendulum were far from its supreme level. I have picked up his most recent work, The Prague Cemetery (2010), and can already say that he has not succeeded again.

However, there are some noteworthy points. Let me first start with the weaknesses. The Prague Cemetery is a historical novel, set in the second half of nineteenth century Europe. This does not have to be a weakness if only many important historical events play a role in the story and thus defining it’s development. This is especially influenced by the format Eco has written the story in. As he has done several times before the novel is a book within a book as most of it is a recollection from the diary of the main character. As a consequence the story covers a long period of time in which the character retells the historic events and the minor role he has played in them. The effect of this is that the story is fragmentary and spends little time with different characters. The main character gets all the focus which makes the other characters, often real historical persons, rather one-dimensional. They remain distant and most are seen only for a short time. The main character himself doesn’t seem to change at all over time. This is explainable, but nevertheless a bit dull as we experience him over many years.

Because of the diary format, stylistically the prose is nothing peculiar. Like I have noted in the works after Foucault’s Pendulum Eco uses the lack of stylistic skills of the narrator to be lazy about the presentation of his writing. It creates no atmosphere or impact. It’s just a story, although it entertains well.

So with all this, historical events that dominate and do not provide just a background setting, lack of substantial characterization and unremarkable prose style, there are still many elements that make this a good novel. Eco is an erudite person. His knowledge of things is vast. He manages to provide historical events that few have taken notice of and takes them into the spotlight, recording them in a somewhat absurd light while human nature can be like that to make it realistic. His characters and settings mostly take place in the shady environment surrounding the events and with this he creates a strange and entertaining view of what could really have been going on. Truth, deceit and lies are hard to distinguish from each other. Eco doesn’t hesitate to show that not everyone is being fooled that easily. The problem is that nobody is able to see the real truth anymore. To can only see what they are allowed to.

Although I mentioned that the diary style and the way he used the historical events to dominate the story, they are all in the style of the classic historical feuilleton stories of the mid-nineteenth century. He does not hesitate to point this out by giving a small role to the famed author Alexandre Dumas and lets the main character be involved in the same industry as well. With this he created a metaphysical novel, representing what he is writing about. I only noticed it because I have been reading Dumas’ novels the past year.

The whole setup of the diary forms the true gimmick of this novel, one that I hesitate to disclose, although the reader will find it out fairly soon in the novel himself. Let’s just say that the diary is not what it looks like. Eco uses it to great effect and entertainment. Still I sometimes wonder if he could have used it even more stronger. Too much time is spent on the telling of the general story and the historic events, while there could have been a greater focus on the gimmick and develop it even more.

In the end I could consider The Prague Cemetery to be Eco’s best novel since Foucault’s Pendulum. It does not come close to that level. It does manage to rise above the average level of the novel since. It contains many entertaining elements to be a great read and it will, as Eco always does, let the learn about things he knew little about and broaden his perspective.