Archive for October, 2013

Ian C. Esslemont – Blood And Bone

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

It does not happen often that one gets to enjoy two novels of a similar series within the time of two months. While Steven Erikson completed his run with the epic fantasy series of the Malazan Book Of The Fallen and has followed with an origin story, Ian C. Esslemont is exploring the stories that took place around the same time of the aforementioned series but were not essential to the greater story. In his previous novel, Orb Sceptre Throne, he wrapped up some leftover storylines from Toll The Hounds, this time he continues the story of The Return Of The Crimson Guard, his second novel. Does that already sound complicated? His new novel, Blood And Bone (2012), takes place around the same time as his third novel, Stonewielder. The setting is however completely different.

Let us not focus on the details of the story within the greater framework but on the book itself. There are only a few familiar faces in Blood And Bone. Most of the characters are new although a fair number of them thread in familiar setups. One could say Esslemont does these on the automatic. The rest of the charm comes from the new characters which have a rather different background. Esslemont adds two new cultures although the reader gets a limited view on their society as everyone is away on a kind of mission. Nevertheless we see many hints and most of what we do experience is interesting. The setting is different enough from the usual that Esslemont now has the chance to do some exploration that is new and create a voice that is more of his own. Even so, his style remains reminiscent of Erikson’s and as I’ve read Erikson’s Forge Of Darkness only a few months ago, he still does not manage to improve his quality to the same level. I experience his style as Erikson-light. It is still good, but he does not manage to impress.

One cause of this might be the story itself. There are like five, six main threads that are followed besides a few minor ones. While each is distinctly different and well characterized most of them suffer the problem that they all experience a similar journey as their goal is the same. The plot complexity comes from the different paths they have to take before they get there. As the environment has a rather heavy impact this means that they all experience the same things. This is logical and right, but it also has the result that Esslemont describes similar details for each of those threads. Things just get repetitive. Although the journeys are fun and interesting they do lack the real spark. There are few really engaging events. There are mainly minor conflicts and while amusing, they do not really turn the status quo. This does not have to be so for a story, but The Return Of The Crimson Guard and Stonewielder contained many powerful events that were quite captivating and lifted the story up. Things like these are missing here.

Esslemont creates many new fun characters but the cast is large and in the end most of them we won’t see again. As is typical with the Malazan novels they get limited screentime because of the many threads, although like Erikson, Esslemont is able to get a lot out of them. Many of them are three-dimensional and fairly original even if we get to experience barely a few pages of them in the total. That is still a quality that makes this series of novels stand out above the rest.

Overall the plot is quite sound and Esslemont handles the many threads well. He also has to deal with less fallout from the greater story of the Malazan universe which allows him to make the story his own. I enjoyed it a lot and despite the few weaknesses this book is still much better than most fantasy novels. There is one last comment I do want to make. Within the story are some references to revelations from Forge Of Darkness. Because of this those references might feel rather strange for those who haven’t read that novel. Personally I think they could have been left out without consequence, so I didn’t really understand why Esslemont put them in. It makes the novel less standalone than could have been.

 

Jane Austen – Pride And Prejudice

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

In my review of Sense And Sensibility, the first published novel by Jane Austen, I criticized the fact that Austen seemed to avoid dialogue and when she used it it was of mediocre quality. In her second novel, Pride And Prejudice (1813), she takes down the flaws of her first novel in a powerful way. It is still a romance in which relationships and possible engagements form the core of the story, in which women have the center stage and the men play important but secondary roles. Austen had made some considerable changes of which many are for the better.

Most compelling and enjoyable about Pride And Prejudice, at least for the first half, are the dialogues. They are sharp and witty and Austen dares to go a long way. Many constraints that were put in the behavior of the characters of Sense And Sensibility are gone. In fact, both of these vices are rather gone. Like the title it are pride and prejudice which determine the course of the first part of the story and several character speak with great subtlety to express their true feelings.

Another strong point of Pride And Prejudice are the characters, foremost the main character with her four sisters and her parents. They are all a little bit unusual. One could say they have extreme characteristics and it is almost a pity that Austen doesn’t give them all a sufficient greater part. The main character however is the best of them, so Austen’s choice for her is the best. She is a real heroine: she is headstrong, independent and smart. Most of all she dares, which is somewhat unusual in the constrained society she lives in. Besides the central family most of the side characters remain somewhat shallow. Of those only two male characters are well developed and again they have the most extreme characteristics that make them most worthwhile to use. So Austen makes the best choices although she loses a bit on the less important characters.

The story itself starts somewhat dull but quickly develops into an entertaining piece with many twists which reaches it peak halfway. It is at that point that the story turns inward. A dramatic development takes the energy out of the main character who becomes more of a onlooker as she has no central part anymore in the events. She has no position anymore to act like she did before and becomes rather timid. With that the strong dialogue is also gone and Austen simply plays out the intended conclusion of the different story threads. It is rather the opposite of Sense And Sensibility which had most of it surprises and sparks in the final part, while there is little of that in Pride And Prejudice.

Austen shows vast improvement with Pride And Prejudice. Not only in her storytelling but also in her dialogue. She does not manage to maintain that level however  and the second part of the novel is rather average. All in all it is a good read as it avoids too overly romantic mesmerizing, making it more accessible and entertaining novel, with many interesting characters.

 

Jane Austen – Sense And Sensibility

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I usually don’t venture into the realm of women’s literature except by accident if the backcover of a book does not give away the usual stereotypical elements of the story. There are of course exceptions. Some works of women’s literature have survived the test of time and they are of an age they also represent and depict the times they are written in as they are contemporary novels of that period. I am not speaking in a negative way about these novels. Just like there are books that mainly men like, there are also books that only have female fans. Usually one sex does not cross over to the territory of the other sex. That’s just how things are.

Among those works are the novels of Jane Austen. I have a collected works edition which I purchased for a cheap price six and a half years ago. It thus took some time before I was in the right mood to give it a go. I have started with Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense And Sensibility (1811). It was different than I expected. First off was Austen’s prose which is easy to read. She does have a tendency to use certain words and phrases frequently but not too often. It’s not like other authors don’t do so, but the words Austen uses are rather different from the typical. Secondly the settings and events were much more mundane and not as dramatic as is more common these days. Yes there were some dramatic scenes but they were limited and Austen wrapped them in a proper wrapping in which the characters behave in a bit more constrained way.

Austen narrates the story from an all-knowing third person viewpoint. With this she also constrains the dialogue she uses. Much dialogue is unsaid and mainly summarized while these would often lead to an interesting interaction between characters. On a few occasions the dialogue became more extensive as a character started holding a long monologue which was more of a long rambling than making sense or a point.

Although the story is told by an all-knowing narrator most of the focus is on one female character. Secondary are her younger sister and a old matron with whom they spend much time. It are these three which we get to know best. There is a range of side-characters, most of which get very few lines of dialogue and of whom we learn little background. Opposite those three female characters are three male characters who take center stage and of whom we learn more. They are however not that often around but can be seen as the main side-characters.

The story itself is somewhat peculiar. We mainly get a view of the lives of English upper class women. They do not work and if they have children they don’t need to spend all their time on them. Much time is spent on gossiping, reading, handicraft or play cards. They also take many walks in the countryside if they reside there, or shopping when they are in a city. It depicts a rather leisurely life in which not much happens. One typical element is lengthy stays at other people as everyone tries to seek variation in companionship so they can introduce their guests to their own circle in society. Of the men we get to know very little as they are mostly out of sight.

The plot is very much about gossiping and possible engagements between men and women. Austen throws in some twists to provide some dramatic developments but she keeps these constrained so that the events are not deepened more than necessary.

Overall Sense And Sensibility was a much better read than expected. The main character was well chosen due to her great sense and composure and was very likable. The settings and many side characters however remained rather shallow. As relationships form the core of the story, anything that is not related to it is mostly ignored. There was thus a lack of detail which made the story not that contemporary. Many events are relatively timeless, despite the lack of quick communications and ways to travel.

I made quite some remarks but these do not make this a poor novel. I won’t really say it is a good novel. It is a decent one and the peculiarities depicted through the times it is set in allow for a different atmosphere. Together with the fine prose these make this novel a fine read.

 

Steven Erikson – Forge Of Darkness

Monday, October 14th, 2013

How can one describe the re-invention of a grand and complex mythology created in the massive Malazan Book Of The Fallen series? Because this is what Steven Erikson has done in Forge Of Darkness (2012), the first novel of the Kharkanas Trilogy, an epic fantasy that throws much that was guessed before into disarray.

Erikson shows that all mythology has a core of truth in it but that time warps and twists it into something much grander. What the readers of the Malazan Book Of The Fallen might have imagined has become in a way much mundaner. On the other hand he introduces staggering new ideas and concepts that turn everything upside down. In this first novel we encounter much disclosure. Many secrets are revealed, but as of yet they are incomplete and this will urge the reader to continue onwards to the next installments.

I have been a great fan of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. Erikson’s writing is of superb quality. He tells a layered story from multiple character viewpoints with a great number of story lines that keep a steady pace and of which none falter or start to bore. He switches between them with ease and anticipation. From the first words on the first page I am captivated and each time I can simply discern to large gap between other fantasy storytellers.

Forge Of Darkness is written in a slightly different style. While the Malazan Book Of The Fallen was somewhat melancholic, with the characters going forward despite the odds and taking life lightly, with comic banter between the characters, this is much different here. There is more drama. There is little banter. The characters look more inward and are of a more gloomy nature. Forge Of Darkness can best be described as a tragedy in the classic sense. It is more heroic and vengeful.

Forge Of Darkness is filled with many familiar characters. Some take center stage while others play minor roles. The world-building is kept more constrained. This is a more simpler universe before things turned far more complex in the ages to come. Someone who hasn’t read any Malazan novels can read this novel as a standalone story but the effect is much greater to read this afterwards.

I had no idea what to expect from this so-called prequel to the Malazan novels. Of course I was intrigued and I had some expectations. Much was however blown away in the early pages of the novel. Erikson did the unexpected and with this simple enchanted me. The only question that now remains with me is where the story will be taken and if Erikson can deliver something much greater than I had imagined. Highly recommended.