Archive for November, 2012

Ashok K. Banker – Prince Of Ayodhya

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

I starting delving into the realm of Hindu mythology with Prince Of Ayodhya (2003) by Ashok K. Banker. This is the first book of the Ramayana. Banker wrote a modern rendition of the 3000 year old epic poem. This is quite evident from the start of the novel. The prose is fluent and easy while being characteristically Indian. And that is I think one of the benefits that this novel is written by a native. The story breathes Hindu culture and is full with Hindu words to which there is no English alternative. Often I could only guess at what they meant, although Banker weaves explanations regularly into the narrative as also in India there are many languages. The many foreign words do help creating a wonderful atmosphere that is very different from regular Western or Eastern sceneries. The Hindu universe is quite different. Even so some things remain familiar. The themes of old epic poems do have certain similarities and for one who is familiar with them some elements have been seen before.

I did not pre-read anything about the Ramayana on purpose to let the story be as new and original to me as possible. Still, the story has a modern feeling to it as Banker avoids going old style. He wants to make the story as accessible as possible. I have no doubt a lot of scenes and characterizations have been expanded and added, so that it all feels like any regular novel except for the grand and mythological setting where gods, demons and sage play a large role in the life of humans. A few times Banker did go a bit too far, using references to other places and peoples that were not very plausible to be known in those times. It would not have hurt if he has left it out as much of the geography in the story are hard to fathom for the reader. In contrast to this attempt to provide a better frame in which to place the story, he uses a lot of numbers, distances and times spent that don’t make much sense. I can only assume he followed the Ramayana he more strictly. Making this detail more reasonable and acceptable would have worked much better. To me they sounded at times ridiculous.

There is a lot of detail and story in Prince Of Ayodhya, which basically revolves around two parts which each cover a certain plot development. Each plot development is extended extensively, so all in all there does not really happen that much in the book. I was nowhere bored as the details are rich and it was all very entertaining so there was not much of a disappointment. I do hope the next novels will show more development.

Basing a novel on a mythic epic tale that has proven its success can be a good guarantee for success. The plot and characters are already there, so you only have to worry about the presentation. Overall this is quite good. The minor issues I mentioned before are hardly a bother. It was only the slow plot development and the extended scenes that slowed my own reading pace a bit down. There are moments when you must keep reading. At other times you read leisurely, as I did, for short periods every day. I will continue with the second installment as I’m eager to find out what happens next.

 

Indian mythology renditions

Monday, November 12th, 2012

I’ve bored into a new source of literature in the form of Indian mythology (not the native American one, but the real Indian one). The Indian writer Ashok K. Banker is working on a modern rendition of the mythology of his country as it, for me at least, has not really been introduced to popular culture. One of the series he is working on is the Ramayana. Of the 8 books he has published until now I found 4. The were second-hand and cheap so the choice to buy them was easy as this series has found critical acclaim and has been translated in other languages. So there is a good chance I may like it. The titles of the first four books are Prince Of Ayodhya (2003), Siege Of Mithila (2003), Demons Of Chitrakut (2004) and Armies Of Hanuman (2005).

Stephen Hunt – From The Deep Of The Dark

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

One of the downsides of reviewing several book of a series after each other is that it becomes hard to review the later novels independently. You will automatically compare it with the previous ones and not judge it on its own merits. On the other hand it does provide insight into how readable the series remains when reading them all together.

The reason why I make this remark is because of this review of From The Deep Of The Dark (2012) by Stephen Hunt. It is the sixth book of the steampunk Jackelian series and the fifth in a row I’ve read and reviewed. In my earlier reviews I made some comments about the author sometimes taking it easy by rehashing plot elements and structures that worked well before. Until now he managed to add in enough variation to avoid doing so too much. With From The Deep Of The Dark he failed to avoid it.

The cause of this failure I can explain. The first third of the novel starts well and original and includes much to set up expectations. Unlike the previous novels there are now three main protagonists of which one is a familiar one I enjoyed before, so I was happy to see him return. Here I have to add that three main protagonists proved too much for the story as they don’t get sufficient attention. Only one of the two really gets established with the quality that we are used to. The other remains rather stereotypical.

After a good beginning Hunt starts disclosing the plot and here it goes awry. Initially there is a mystery to discover. Instead of following this course Hunt decides to expand the scope of the plot wildly. The threat is far larger than any character could have imagined. To solve this plot problem he introduces a plot device he used before and which in this series damages the story, except for the first novel, where it did work. This is the fantasy element. Overall Hunt founds his steampunk world on science fiction. There are some light fantasy elements to make it a bit weirder. This works well. Whenever Hunt cannot solve the plot in a regular way he adds in fantasy to fix it. This is necessary when he makes the plot too big and the scope too vast. When he does this he loses control of the story. He must follow a certain course to solve the problems he created with this plot. This results in the plot becoming predictable. Actually, much of the next two-thirds of the novel held few surprises for me. I had seen it used all before. The only questions I had were if he would use this or that at certain points. There were some surprising moments, luckily, so it was not all a disappointment.

The grand plot problem also had another downside. Hunt introduces a new underwater world to expand his universe. Before we get there the grand plot has already kicked in and because he has to follow through the set course he has almost no time to explore this new world. That he used the underwater world addition is rather striking, as another steampunk series, Shadows Of The Apt, also has a novel doing, The Sea Watch, something similar. Although I consider Hunt’s steampunk world to be more interesting and better realized overall, he fails here against The Sea Watch, which does take the time to establish the underwater world. Anyways, the problem with the set course is that it failed for me because I had seen it too much already in his previous novels. If I had read this novel one or more years later it would probably have worked much better. Nevertheless the grand plot problem remains an issue with Hunt’s plotting as he has a tendency to stick to that instead of aiming for something more reasonable which allows him to develop and explore characters and settings more. A more regular plot would also allow for more variation because grand plots leave little space for doing something different.

Another thing which I noticed was that the plot elements of this novel contain many similarities to the third novel of the series, The Rise Of The Iron Moon. I gave a pretty negative review of that novel. It almost feels to me that this novel is a rewrite of that novel, trying to remove a lot of discrepancies, inconsistencies and flaws, while keeping the essences. I have to say Hunt did succeed in his aim if he wanted to do a rewrite as From The Deep Of The Dark is a pretty decent novel.

My conclusion of the novel is mixed. As an independent novel it would have worked well enough. Even if the story is a standalone one, it is part of a series so it will be compared to them.  Many of the earlier novels were pageturners for me. I could hardly put them down. As this novel became quite predictable to me because Hunt re-used so many plot elements it became harder for me to continue as he didn’t seem able to steer off the course he was bound to follow. This rehashing was already slowly becoming a problem in the earlier novels and here he failed to avoid them. He is getting stuck on his own clichés and apparently does not realize it himself. In the series this is a reasonable novel. Nowhere close to the low level of the third book, but not near the good quality of the four other novels in the series. If you want to enjoy this one sufficiently, make sure to read it some considerable time after the other novels.

 

Stephen Hunt – Jack Cloudie

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

I continue my reviews of the Jackelian series by Stephen Hunt with the fifth novel Jack Cloudie (2011). Those who read my previous review will note I am seemingly skipping the fourth book. This is not actually the case as the fourth book was the first of the series that I read. So you can find my review of Secrets Of The Fire Sea in my post of a few months ago.

Stephen Hunt keeps varying the amount of fantasy and science fiction in his steampunk novels. The first and third novel had a more stronger fantasy component while the second and fourth had very little with a stronger science fiction component. One might guess Jack Cloudie would have a stronger fantasy component again, but this time he breaks with pattern as Jack Cloudie has very little fantasy. Like Secrets Of The Fire Sea the scope of the story is toned down, although there is still a major threat that has to be overcome.

For the first time in the series there are two male protagonists and the story contains a range of new characters, although one familiar one remains, as Hunt doesn’t seems able to let go him. The story itself does not need him as he is put in an unusual position. Also for the first time one of the main characters is a foreigner which provides another change. Even so, they are not Hunt’s strongest protagonists. Hunt fails to make them unique although he does provide a certain gusto to both of them. Nevertheless the characterization is not very strong compared to the other books except the third.

With this fifth book I also noted a contrast with the first three books, which had a bit of a dark and grim atmosphere about them that reminded me of the feeling I had when reading China Mieville‘s New Crobuzon novels. After the third book, which was very dark, Hunt changed his tone. Secrets Of The Fire Sea still had some dark themes, but overall it was lighter and the characters did not go through the heavy hardships and terrors of the first three books. The Mieville-vibe was not there anymore and Hunt continues in the same style in Jack Cloudie. Hunt aims at having more fun while keeping the familiar elements he used previously.

The plot of the novel is also somewhat simpler than the first three novels, although there are plenty of twists. There is still plenty of story but the road taken goes much faster. The pace is actually rather fast and sometimes too fast. In one scene characters are going to leave a place and in the next scene other characters refer to the place in the past. A number of events are skipped and the reader can only assume the previous scene did occur before the reference in the next scene. A few extra scenes to fill in the time difference could have helped there. Now it just felt odd.

After my disappointment with the third novel this one got me right back on track. Especially the more uplifting and lighter tone of the story helped a lot. It is still a rather traditional plot. Hunt follows paths that have been successful before. The main differences which allow the story to be something quite more and very entertaining are the steampunk elements and the mixing of ideas that he puts together to form a vibrant brew. As usual there are still minor flaws, but they remain superficial. The main weakness of the novel are the main protagonists which are not as original and developed as Hunt has managed in his other novels. It is for this reason why I put it on fourth of the five novels read until now, although the gap to fifth is huge and with the top three small. Recommended.