Archive for July, 2013

Amanda Downum – The Bone Palace

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

While Amanda Downum introduced her main character in a foreign settings in the first novel of The Necromancer Chronicles, she puts the setting to her home turf in The Bone Palace (2010). This allows her to provide more background on the character and put things in perspective.

The first thing I want to comment on, as to me it stood quite out from the story, is the world building. In the first novel there was the foreign setting with some light familiar elements which gave it a genuine feeling. Now being in the character’s home one is still in a supposedly foreign environment. Downum adds some particular cultural phenomena with which she shows originality and a refreshing setup. If one has to put things in a social analogy to a period on Earth I would set it to be somewhere in the early nineteenth century. There is a certain scientific approach to society and there are certain institutions one won’t find before that period. There is more decadence and women hold many powerful positions. Of course this is a fantasy world so someone can make up one’s own hotchpotch of different element to create a different kind of brew.

All these efforts are damaged because Downum actually projects her worldbuilding on existing Earth analogies, using slightly changed names and characteristics of Earth cultures. If one is familiar with these you immediately make the wrong associations. To me it seems as if Downum created something new on the main level, but when she had to go into details she got lazy and copied from known things.

This supposed laziness also showed in the minor settings she needed to use in her story. In certain cases I questioned if they would have actually existed in this world as they exist nowadays as well and although certain forms might have existed in such an environment they felt as if Downum just needed something like it and didn’t think about it if it fitted. These are all just details, but the world isn’t explained well enough to understand its working wells enough so I have to go with my honches.

Downum introduces many new characters as few are left from the previous book. Like The Drowning City, Downum provides a few extra perspectives to tell the story. These perspectives are very good ones and provide a greater insight in this world. One thing that showed more clearly since the first novel is the conflicting nature of the main characters. She is a spy and killer whose abilities lies in the dark arts (necromancy, as the series title already implies), but apparently this does not bother many except the occasional scary glance of outside characters. In reality the character is very emotional, softhearted and disturbingly self-destructive. Luckily nobody notices as she apparently manages to behave the right way in public. Even though she makes many bad choices, willingly as she is self-destructive, it’s only herself that suffers from it.

Making bad choices willingly is actually a habit all characters seem to share. If they were rational or had some strong core they might have been able to resist their urges and control themselves, but for some reason nobody seems capable of doing so. Everybody, males and females included, is softhearted despite the outward grim facade, unable to control their emotion. As they all suffer from these bad traits it seems not that strange that nobody notices the main character also having them. It’s a messed up society.

Despite all these misgivings Downum provides a well-paced plot, wasting little time and adding many minor twists that keep the pages turning. That does not prevent certain things to become predictable. Downum has a certain habit of story development and she also gives away too easy hints that experienced readers notice easily so at a fairly early stage I had a fair idea of what was going on and who would kick the bucket for sure. Uncertainties of course remained but my guesses turned out right. There were still some twists that I had missed or had not predicted, but when so much happens one cannot look for all the details. I am also not aiming to predict the outcome. These things just come naturally as the story progresses as the author presents her characters in a certain way that seem a preparation for what will happen to them. One could say it is a trap that an author can easily step into: This character will be removed, so I should provide some extra’s to give it more weight and the character have had sufficient backstory.

So this book contained a lot of interesting things, peculiarities and some predictability. Weaknesses in worldbuilding are unfortunately very common in fantasy. Creating something from scratch requires far more work and its easier to copy something from our own world which will automatically create the right associations. Downum does add some original ingredients of her own. This lifts the world up to some extent as the automatic associations can also conflict with the new ingredients. This does not put me off, but it does prevent the series from reaching a higher level as there is a certain lack of quality. Luckily it is not a great lack which make the novels a quite enjoyable read. Downum does have some habits in the way she portrays her characters. They all share certain traits. One might call them weaknesses. I don’t mind imperfect characters but it is bothersome they all share the same kind of weakness. There is a lot of room for improvement on this part.

The novels until now contain a self-contained story so they leave with a satisfactory conclusion. Downum does add some details which do not play a role in the main story but hint at something to come. I also missed some explorations of certain things which to me was probably because these would be play a role in a later story to come. Of course these are just guesses, but they do help in the anticipation of what to come. I am certainly not done with these series and will continue to read it.

E.R. Eddison – A Fish Dinner In Memison

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

One of the most peculiar titles to a fantasy novel must be A Fish Dinner in Memison (1940) by E.R. Eddison. It is the second novel in the so-called Zimiamvia Trilogy, although Eddison did not really write it as a sequel but more of a standalone side-story to the first novel. As I haven’t read the first novel yet I have no idea about the implications. Most people would probably read the first novel first so I expect I will have a different perspective reading it in reversed order.

This is no easy novel to read. This is foremostly caused by Eddison’s prose. He uses a very lyrical and almost free style which reminded me a little of some of the works of James Joyce. Eddison writes to gain a certain effect but in reality I had trouble getting through the complexe sentence structures which did not follow the usual English. I should add that he does not use the style all the time.

There are actually two stories: one takes places in our own world and one in a different one. The earthly story is more readable as it uses more regular English. These two storylines do form a certain pair. There are certain similarities and some contrasts in the events portrayed. The main similarities are formed by the great amount of philosophy and references that describe scenes or are part of dialogues. Eddison shows off his erudite knowledge which in a way is annoying as it requires an equally knowledgeable person to fully appreciate what he is using. As I am not much into philosophy much of it was lost to me. So actually large parts of the novel simply went by on me. I simply did not grasp the greater meaning and Eddison did not make it clear to understand as well because of his difficult style of prose.

So what remained were the non-philosophical parts. There is not much of a plot. The titular dinner forms the philosophical centerpiece of the novel. As I only partially understood the whole idea it was a bit lost to me. Besides the dinner there are a few dramatic and non-dramatic events that are only partially connected. It was here that I wondered if having read the first novel would have helped me here, even though Eddison himself said one should not really need to have done so. I expect to receive the first book soon, so I will be able to find out then if it matters.

The characters in the novel are clearly familiar to Eddison. They have already been fleshed out so Eddison does not waste time to present them. One will thus have to experience them and that he does quite well despite the many philosophical dialogues. We might not really spend serious time with them in their “normal” behavior so one can say this is a positive note.

So my main conclusion on this novel is that it is unusual and peculiar. It has a concept that I haven’t encountered before. It contains great richnesses if one knows how to appreciate them. If you don’t the novel will keep one puzzled. Satisfaction will also be absent. Can I make a final judgment here? I don’t know. As it is part of a trilogy reading the other novels could change my opinion and perhaps I would want to read this novel again to understand it better. Such can be the risks of starting with the second novel of a trilogy.

Doris Lessing – The Grass Is Singing

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

In her debut novel The Grass Is Singing (1950), Doris Lessing takes the reader to southern Africa, the area in which she grew up herself, and provides a view on the lives of the people there, those who have been there for some time and those who are looking for new chances. It is a time of colonization, albeit a slow one, that is defined by a clear separation between the native Africans and the white population. It is a peculiar society with many unwritten rules. Lessing does not put these up front but shows it by describing the daily lives and behavior of the characters.

There are not many characters in the story. It is centered around an odd couple leading an isolated life on their farm. There are three notable side characters although even they get relatively little attention. All other characters get hardly any attention. I have pretty much forgotten them already.  With so few characters it is obvious that Lessing delves deep into them and pretty much takes everything she can make of it. The downside, even though the novel is not long, is that the reader will get the gist of it at a certain point and the rest is simply sitting it out.

Although there is plenty of story there is not really that much plot development. Lessing actually takes the most dramatic event to the front of the novel. This device worked well as it immediately got me intrigued. It spurred me on on the next chapters to see what had been going on. As I mentioned earlier, Lessing then starts taking her time. It is not that the pace is too slow, but one starts to realize that the most interesting part has already been read and one is reading a thorough study of how things came to be, which is not that exciting. I still hoped for the story to take a different turn but at a certain point you realize it is not going to happen.

The novel is well written. As said Lessing starts with a strong opening. Her description of the different types of life in southern Africa is clear and easily understandable. One can see the many layers without them really being touched. As Lessing was probably very familiar with these she did not need to go into detail as she was simply describing what was natural to her. It is for the reader to actually recognize it. It is here that you see the quality of the novel.

The story itself is a drama or tragedy. There is no real happiness and life for the characters is quite bleak. It did not yet become depressing, but this kind of novel is not something I enjoy to read. I read on to see it to the end, partially in the hope it would have some twist in store or some development that would make a difference. This did not happen and because of that this book does not get a positive review from me. It is not that I require a happy ending but I have a positive attitude. If a story does not hold a bigger message of some meaning it will simply not touch me. This is the case for The Grass Is Singing. It is the study of a tragedy and it holds nothing more than a fine picture of the time and place the story is set in.

Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises

Monday, July 8th, 2013

The breakthrough novel for Ernest Hemingway was The Sun Also Rises (1926). It is a contemporary novel describing a few months in the life of an American journalist working in France during the early twenties of the twentieth century (which is what Hemingway was himself at the time). It is mainly about his relationships with other expatriates in Paris. The locals only play a minor role.

What quickly comes to front is the lack of purpose of the characters. There is a great focus on parties, drinking and enjoying life. Work one does to get the bills paid and one tries to keep it to a minimum. Such characters have of course been around in novels written before this date but I haven’t seen them taking the center of the stage.

With such a focus in the storytelling there is not really much of a plot. It centers about how the characters spend their time and the relationships between them. These relationships are quite peculiar. What struck me most that these were very much like possible relationships of current times. Such kind of relationships could not have existed before the time of the Interbellum which contained great changes in society and culture which seem so common nowadays. I tried to imagine such relationships within the frame of that time, but Hemingway wrote about it without making judgments. The characters involved take it as a matter of fact and there does not seem to be any outsider who takes a different view and expresses.

The story is told from a first-person point-of-view. Compared to the other characters he is more controlled and grounded. Sure he parties and drinks a lot, but he is more level-headed and not taking much serious.

The prose is written in a clean journalistic style. The main character observes and tells us what he thinks is noteworthy without adding much of his own thoughts. Through dialogue and action the reader has to make his own impressions and understanding. In a way this style reminded me of The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger as it uses a similar approach. A main difference is that this main character does not take center stage and stays on sideline, observing but not judging or acting. If his friends aim for self-destruction than he will let them do so unless they ask for his advice or help.

There is a strange mixture of honesty in what he tells while what he says to his friends and how he behaves towards them that contrast with each other. I would not say they conflict. It is part of the honesty to show what really occurred.

One thing that became striking in the central part of the novel is the level of detail Hemingway used to tell his story. In the beginning it was no more than necessary. Afterwards he writes as if he has been personally there in the places the main character visits and he goes into lengthy details of everything that is going on. It is like Hemingway went to the locations and made a detailed diary which he filled in continuously while he went through the experience (checking the background to this novel disclosed to me that he spent plenty of time at the locations). In a way such detail is impressive and it enlivens the scenes greatly. On the other hand I did not feel it to be that necessary. To me he was not really describing things that I could not imagine myself. To me part of the reading experience is filling in the details with my own imagination. Hemingway left no space for that at times.

As I am adding some criticism now I would like to mention one section of the story which contained a journey by car. An earlier journey by train went by quickly. In the car sequence Hemingway felt it necessary to mention every twist and turn. This might have been bearable if the sequence was not made up of long sentences created with repeatedly using the word ‘and’. This part of bad writing really surprised me. Luckily it didn’t last very long.

A lack of plot always gives me trouble. Usually it is avoided because the character undergoes a certain change or the story itself creates a powerful impact. The story of The Sun Also Rises has none of that. The reader gets a period in the life of the main character which does not seem to be any special except that plenty happens which only leads to the side-characters getting some bad experiences. All in all the characters were not particularly likable. One can assume the emptiness of their lives is what Hemingway wanted to describe, but to me that does not make a great or interesting story.

Graham Greene – The Power And The Glory

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

When the weather gets warm and sunny I often find myself more in the mood to read modern literature than during other seasons. From the bottom of my read pile I recovered The Power And The Glory (1940) by Graham Greene to see if I would be able to give it a go and surprisingly I had it finished within several days time.

I had no idea what to expect and I didn’t bother finding out what is was about. Anything that is in my pile I don’t need to check out even if I got the novel cheaply or for free. Knowing as little as possible is in my opinion always better because you won’t have any expectations.

The speed with which I was able to read it only says something about the readability. The prose is fine and Greene doesn’t use a particular style which makes it hard to get through. The story itself starts off in a mixed fashion. One might think that from the multiple view points and the passive nature of the characters will provide a slow story development. The focus then shifts to a single character. Not at once, but gradually. The other viewpoints disappear to the background, so to say. The story then progresses rapidly and although one might assume the plot to develop likewise it is actually going sideways.

This has all to do with the main character who is being hunted but does not want to decide on escaping. Everybody is failing which leads to comedic situations which are actually tragic. I did not like the main character, who has a weak mind and simply seems out of place. It is only at the end that he comes clean with himself and this all feels like it has been postponed for too long. It only because of the occasional comedic situations that I found some amusement during the read.

It is not hard to recognize certain qualities and themes within the novel. The problem for me was that these did not resonate with me. I did not really care about it. One thing I did not get were some of the secondary viewpoints. Yes, they provided some different perspectives, but they were used only in a minimal sense. You get a short view of their world and then they are almost forgotten until the writer decides to let them return one more time at the end to bring closure of a kind.

So what to conclude about this novel? It will depend very much on the reader if he will enjoy it. For me it was an okay pastime for a warm summer read, which was what I was looking for.

Babur – The Journal Of Babur (Babur Nama)

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

Among the most interesting autobiographies are those written by rulers of the distant past. These are so interesting because there are so few. In most cases we have to deal with biographies, often written after the ruler has died. One of the most famous autobiographies, although most people will never have heard of it, is the Babur Nama (1530), which can be translated by The Journal Of Babur, written by Babur, the founder of the powerful Mughal Empire in India.

The journal itself is not exactly a diary. Babur wrote since an early age but later on in life he started to combine them, leading him to add comments and reflections. He was barely coming into majority when he succeeded his father, one of many noblemen in Central Asia, so one can assume these early writings did not contain the rich knowledge and experience of old age.

The noblemen in Central Asia were often semi-independent rulers. They ruled as they pleased and fought wars where they choose but accepted guardianship of one or more of their more powerful relatives. Almost any nobleman of stature was related to all others because they married their sisters or daughters to each other.

I mention this fact because it is a central motive in most of the early parts of the Babur Nama. The power of these noblemen was often fickle. The allegiance of their vassals depended on providing an image of strength and action. A ruler could not sit at home and govern his domain but had to go on campaign to fight an enemy with the hope of gaining booty or lands which he would share with his vassals. If they didn’t profit they would rebel or give their allegiance to a nearby ruler, often urging that ruler to attack their weak former ruler. The campaigns themselves were usually of a demure nature. The ruler tried to find easy opportunities for gains, rarely gave it his all and if chances were not so good he quickly gave up. Actual fighting was limited. At least he had shown he was willing and his vassals also didn’t really want to risk their lives, so both were satisfied this way.

Actual victories did often not last. Conquering another great city meant giving less attention to your home city or giving its ruler to someone else while one hadn’t set up a powerbase in the new city, making one weak for usurpation or reconquest.

The early years of Babur’s life were a continuous string of minor victories and losses, going back and forth to recover what he had lost. One peculiarity in all these events were the marriage relationships. Because all the rulers were related to each other, they could all set a claim for each other’s domain. However, their kinship was also important to them. Killing the former ruler was rarely done unless they fell in a direct battle. They usually let him go to another domain which meant he could come back to recover his loss.

The reason why I am explaining this is because the events in the first part of the Babur Name are of a chaotic nature and continuous mild violence. One would think it very surprising that these rulers often managed to live so long. That is why I explained the issue of kinship.

Of course one does not become the founder of an empire if one stays in such an unstable environment. Babur got tired of it and moved south when he saw an opportunity and when more joined him than he could have expected he managed to break the circle and rise.

However, it took quite some time before he finally decided to make a real grab for the power in India. It did provide him with a secure powerbase which allowed him to sustain his own domain and the new.

I will not tell more about the journal. I just wanted to add my own reflections of what I have read. There is no plot or story development, so I have to write about something of the content.

What about the journal itself? I read an abridged translation. This mean some parts are left out. It is impossible for me to know what I missed. Most of the journal is about the campaigns Babur undertook. Vassals betraying him and coming back are treated leniently. It was part of the daily affairs. One takes what one can get. Real loyalty is appreciated but in contrast less loyal vassals have to be appeased much more and thus get the greater gifts. Babur is very honest in this and simply states his losses how they happened, trying not to make judgments.

There are some sections describing the lands he has ruled, either short or long. Only at a later age Babur tells more about his daily affairs outside the campaign. In here we get to know a bit of his personal feelings. There is much poetry in the journal itself, either quotes from others or lines he wrote himself. He is also honest about his failings, how he tries to redeem himself but not succeeding to do so. These are actually the more enlightening parts of the journal where you gain some insight in those times and locations.

Over the years I have read quite a few (auto)biographies. As they are written during the same period the central character has lived in everything is told from a perspective in which what happens is natural for that time. So a reader has to read between the lines and recognize what is not told or told in such a usual matter that you don’t notice it as peculiar. It are these things which make me enjoy such works as just reading a history will miss most of these peculiarities which provide a greater insight and understanding.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes Complete

Monday, July 1st, 2013

I don’t read that many detectives or mysteries and one might not be surprised that I prefer those of great renown like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. What I like most of them is that despite the mystery centered plot their works give a vivid and recognizable picture of the then contemporary times in which they stories were written. While Agatha Christie’s novels mainly take place in the Interbellum and shortly after, all of Doyle’s mysteries take place before the first world war, in a time when modern technology was only at its breakthrough.

In the case of Arthur Conan Doyle I am of course talking about his stories about Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous detectives ever created. Doyle wrote 4 novels and 56 short stories about him. As the works are more short of nature it is more appropriate to review these not separately but as a whole. I should also add that most of the so-called novels are of a relatively short nature, barely reaching a hundred pages, depending on the edition.

I own a very nice edition called Sherlock Holmes Complete (1985), divided into two large volumes. I bought it a long time ago and this is the third time, I think, I have read it. The stories are ordered in a chronological order. This is of relatively minor importance as Doyle has been very sloppy with his time references in most of his stories, except for three moments. The first two are of course related to the beginning and the end of what are in essence memoirs written by Doctor Watson, the ever present sidekick of Sherlock Holmes. The one other moment is caused by a break that Doyle took in his writing of Sherlock Holmes, being tired of the character. Doyle presented Holmes in a realistic fashion, no matter how fantastical the mysteries might seem. Just as the stories showed a development of Holmes over time, showing the beginning and the end of his career, he needed to give Holmes a break as well, as Doyle didn’t know if he would return to writing more stories.

I should not elaborate too much on these details. As I wrote before the stories depict an almost nostalgic view of late Victorian England. Of course it had its flaws but these were part of it. Every class of society had its peculiarities and so the stories were very recognizable. One could compare it the writings of Dickens although Doyle did not waste time on elaborate descriptions and introspections. It is actually rather surprising that Doyle wrote the stories in a very clean and sober way while his main character Sherlock Holmes was always looking for details. Doyle wrote for money and had to publish regularly. The plot thus was everything and he did not waste words where they weren’t essential. The reader will only find bare descriptions of characters or locations. Doyle gives the characteristics necessary and the reader will have to imagine it. And this works quite well.

The stories themselves are often not that complicated. Doyle simply creates puzzling situations because one has a limited view where misinterpretation plays an important role. Most of his novels are actually no better. Much of the story actually contains a separate narrative telling a more complex background of how current events came to be. The actually mystery was solved rather quickly. That doesn’t take away the fact that these stories inside the mystery are quite engaging.

One thing that I should address is that the Sherlock Holmes stories are in most cases actually more mystery than detective stories. The police may be involved most of the time, but often no actual crime is committed or apprehension of the supposed criminal does not happen. It is a detective because it is the occupation of Sherlock Holmes, but the stories themselves are of a different nature than what the common description of a detective contains.

The stories contain a wide variation of topics. What marks them is the great creativity which Doyle showed in writing so many original stories, keeping his approach and interest strong.

It is hard to say anything about the characters. Few exist which do not know them. Holmes and Watson were a pair that has been copied many times since in different but recognizable variations: the eccentric hyper-intelligent detective and his down-to-earth good-hearted common man companion. Of course I have seen many adaptations of the characters but in the end they are only adaptations. When reading their tales a different picture was created in my head which was much stronger and vivid than any of those adaptations. Making these two central characters that hard to approach I consider a great feat.

As I had done before during my previous readings of these works I enjoyed the stories intensely. It was hard to reach the end, knowing that it will take 5 to 10 years before most plots have become hazy enough for me so that I can enjoy them to the full extent again.