Archive for August, 2013

Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In my ongoing quest for the classics of literature I have come across a lesser known classic. The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins belongs to the very first detective novels. So this was before any standard formats were used and the typical clichés were known. The Moonstone entered a new frontier and just that makes it an exciting read.

In some cases, if one encounters an early book of a genre, one runs the risk that, as it did not know of clichés it can be full of it. This is certainly not the case in the Moonstone. It is actually the lack of standards and formats which make is unique. Collins was still exploring this new genre. He did not know what would work and what would not. This resulted in a novel containing all kinds of familiar elements that are just off a little. They are very appealing but still lacking. It is imperfect. If one has read plenty of detective novels you easily pick out which elements developed into this or that later in the genre. Here they are still different and they have a different effect.

One big game changer compared to contemporary detectives is that this novel is a character piece. The characters define the plot and the mystery while usually it is the plot that defines the story and the characters needed to make it work. The plot itself is not that complex and one can fairly well guess who did it. It is only because Collins makes his characters create smoke screens that the reader remains uncertain until late in the book with a fairly baffling conclusion. The Moonstone makes its mark and it is certainly one of a kind. It will certainly survive the ages, although it should be awarded more attention that is has had as I myself only discovered it by chance.

As I wrote the novel is a character piece. This is for a large extent accomplished by telling the story in several different first person narratives. Each character is very different and creates a different atmosphere in the part in which their story is narrated. Collins has plenty of time to flesh them out. It would even have been better if other characters in the story would also have narrated a part of the story as some remain partially developed and not always as well as the other side characters have been done. Here Collins was probably constricted by the fact that he was telling a detective story and some narratives were simply not logical to present.

The Moonstone is not a perfect novel. Instead it thrives on its imperfections as a detective novel and a strong characterization. The plot floats between complex and simplistic. Some answers were quite impossible to guess while others were fairly obvious. The novel is very much a product of its time where science was only yet developing and there was still a division between higher society and government officials that limited serious investigations. This new change was at the time not ripened yet but one can see it coming. There were still constraints and the differences between social classes and their internal behavior played a large role. Collins depicts these clearly. As always, living 150 years later, it sometimes seems to strange. Are the descriptions and attitudes so distinct because they were normal and natural to the writer or something he aimed at to create a greater contrast. I am not that familiar with mid nineteenth century England to really make comments about it, but contemporary literature, in a way, always describes the times as they are written in and this is what makes them distinct as you can place them in their times. That is a difference that I note between contemporary authors writing a story that takes place many decades ago and novels written in that period.

I will not diverge to much from the actual review of this novel. I think I have said enough already. This one is certainly recommended, not only for fans of the detective genre. One last note: my edition contained extensive notes and introductions. It is advisable to skip them all until the novel is done as they are quite spoilerish.

Amanda Downum – The Kingdoms Of Dust

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

Amanda Downum takes a somewhat different turn in the third book of the Necromancer Chronicles. Although the setting is new there is a sort of reunion of characters from the first novel, The Drowning City. This is notable as Downum spends little time fleshing them out and only does so on the few new characters in this story. It is the main character that surprisingly gets the least quality time. The story might revolve around her, but Downum does not seem to have much to add. This is a missed opportunity because returning characters should provide more space to explore their background and create a stronger character interaction. Downum only does so on a limited scale.

The Kingdoms Of Dust (2012) has a far less dark and gloomy atmosphere. Downum’s take on necromany is more focused on spirits, the (un)dead and the darker sides of magic than the usual associations one has with it as an evil or bad kind of magic. In Downum’s world they are an accepted kind of magic-users, although they are not particularly liked.

Another change is that the story is more straightforward. There are far less layers and there is not much complexity. It is not that it could not have been there, but Downum chooses not to follow that course. The main obstacles in the plot only play a role on the sideline and are each only given a single moment to present themselves and even these are so scarce and short that one will forget them quickly. It might make the story different than the typical chain of events but these are also the things that can spice up the plot. Giving them barely any serious attention creates a story that lacks serious drama. Before much had happened I was already nearing the end and I really felt like “is this all?”.

Besides taking a different approach to her storytelling, Downum also changes the focus of the magic. The main character is not just a basic necromancer. She possesses a wider range of related abilities related to the dead. One of those abilities played a role in the previous novels and now this forms the center of the plot. Unfortunately Downum does not do much with it. Perhaps she had no idea how to expand the concept. It is as straightforward as the plot so for Downum there is not that much to be be done with it. There were hints there might be something more. Downum does a fine job in her storytelling of adding hints and suggestions that the reader might interpret in his own way before Downum decides what it might be. In this case the hints and suggestions were not really followed up. There was not much else. So that is a bit of a letdown.

Of the three books of the Necromancer Chronicles I have to conclude that The Kingdoms Of Dust is the weakest. There is not much excitement on the magic, and the characterization and plotting hold little complexity. There are many missed opportunities. These might be a choice of the author to avoid standard plot elements, but these do make a more entertaining read and provide more drama. This novel lacked on many parts. It is certainly not bad, just unsatisfactory on the reading experience. This does not mean I will quit the series. If there is another installment I will probably pick it up although it does have to improve again.