Archive for November, 2013

Words in pieces

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

In older times there were no standards set for the length of a story or a book. Because of that there exist some massive works spreading many volumes and it is only the loss of material due to lack of copying (everything) over time that many are reduced to more manageable sizes.

Recently I had a lengthy vacation in China and this roused by interest in the classics of Chinese literature. China invented bookprint some centuries before the West did so there must be some stuff around. I selected two works, partially because they were quite extensive as mentioned above. Luckily these were complete stories. However their length also meant that the work had been cut into separate volumes. Of course this happens all the time these days but with such old works there is always the question if the place where the work is cut into pieces is not random and does allow for a break. I have no idea so I will have to wait and see.

The first work is a historical novel called The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (ca. 1400) by Guangzhong Luo. It is an abridged version, although this was done in the 1660s, in which non-relevant material (for the story) was removed and some passages were improved. So technically the story is still complete. It’s total length is about 1300 pages so the novel is cut into two parts. The novel is an adaptation of a set of oral tales about a period in history from 184 to 280, telling about the events that lead to the fall of the Han dynasty and the breakup of China into three rival kingdoms which warred with each other. The story has been adapted into modern versions a lot so it is nice to read the original tale.

The second work is one of the first modern Chinese novels, written in 1760, although the work was still incomplete by that time as the author, named Xueqin Cao, died in that year. It took until 1791 before the work was actually published and the publisher, named Gao E, used the working manuscript of the author to complete the story. The work I am talking about is published under two titles. Its most common name is The Dream Of The Red Chamber, although my edition carries the alternative name, The Story Of The Stone. Its total length runs to about 2500 pages. I have obtained the complete version of the novel and this edition has been cut into five pieces: 3 books of 600 pages, compromising the original works by Xueqin Cao, and 2 books of over 300 pages which have been completed by Gao E. Unlike The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms the five volumes each carry a title of their own: The Golden Days, The Crab-Flower Club, The Debt Of Tears, The Warning Voice, and The Dreamer Awakes. As the last two versions were not completely written by the author I intend to review each novel separately, although that may give me some headaches on giving each something new to say about.

So far about the background of this work. As I’ve mentioned it is a modern novel, which means it has a story that takes place in about the same time and reflects events that take place. So when it was published it was a contemporary novel: It told about people, society and culture that were fairly familiar to the readers and as such the work reflects and depicts mid seventeenth century life and just for that it makes a very interesting work as very few of such works can be found from the past and this one belongs to the earliest in which authors began to write about their own society and life (not counting autobiographies) in a story they made up themselves.

I don’t know when I will pick up these works but they will be attracting my eye on my bookshelves for the time to come.

 

Kate Elliott – Spirit Gate

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Many fantasy authors use Earthly analogies in their worldbuilding so that the cultures they create are very familiar in the way they are set up and how names are used. One common type is the use of Arabic names in desert cultures which in their behavior resemble  the Arabic cultures as well. Of course there are traits that are simply logical but one can put in a few twists to make them really different. So I am rather happy when I come across a fantasy story which contains original cultures or familiar cultures which have a sufficiently different twist to them. This is the case in the Crossroads Trilogy by Kate Elliott. In Spirit Gate (2007) she introduces several different cultures. The central one is truly original and worked out in most detail while the others are shown to a limited degree. There may be a desire to know more, but explaining it all is not required. The reader is interested, at least I was, and thus pays more attention when there is contact or information. In her previous series, Crown Of Stars, Elliott also showed good ability in creating different cultures.

The novel contains a low degree of magic. It is actually the central culture which possesses the largest amount of magical elements and even these are not very extensive. They serve as a special component. This component is however what drives the story and central to the plot.

The story itself is told from the viewpoint of several characters. Sometimes Elliott goes back a little in time  so that events are told from other perspectives as well. Elliott stays with the character for some considerable time so the reader gets to know them well as jumping from one to the other can lead to less attachment. She presents original characters which share the similar trait of having a strong core in times of need. On the outside they are very different. I don’t mind this similar traits as it is not an obvious one. I just mention it to give an indication of the characters that are being used.

Elliott takes her time to set up the story. It is after more than half of the novel that things get going and there are some fireworks. Elliott does provide an exciting finale although there still remains much of a mystery regarding the enemy, which is somewhat unusual. Elliott has an easy readable prose which keeps the reader quite engaged and sets a steady pace which is not too slow or too fast. She does make choice of which events she wants to show. Some she keeps short while other are more lengthy, although these also depend on the viewpoint that is chosen which often has a limited view of the events.

Spirit Gate is a well balanced novel with an interesting story, original cultures and characters. It takes a fresh approach in worldbuilding with light fantastical elements. In my reviews of Elliott’s previous series Crown Of Stars, my main criticism was the unstable quality level of the different novels. Spirit Gate belongs to the better quality ones and is much more solid in its writing, showing much improvement in Elliott’s writing ability, giving me much confidence on continuing on the next installment. This on is certainly recommended.

 

Wilkie Collins – The Woman In White

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

One of my goals while exploring the world of books is reading the classics of literature. I don’t aim to read all of them because some  simply turn out not to my liking. So if I have tried at least one famous novel of an acclaimed author I am satisfied enough as I am able to express my opinion on its nature as a classic. One branch of classics, which is a bit more obscure, is reading those novels which created a new genre or subgenre in literature. Of course such definitions are prone to discussion as literature always goes through different stages of development. Novels can be denoted as partially creating a new genre so one defining line would be that a whole novel is intentionally written to be in the new genre as a whole and that it lead to many new authors copying the new genre.

One of those classics in literature which created a new genre is The Woman In White (1860) by Wilkie Collins, the first “sensation” novel. Of course sensation is a broad term. What defines The Woman In White is that its sole purpose is to captivate the reader with an exciting story while making use of cliffhangers to keep them reading. So one could say a sensation novel is a pageturner. It makes the reader unable to put the novel down. The novel was originally published as a weekly serial and its success achieved great heights. This format and the aim of the author to put in each part something that would keep the reader hooked was on a level not seen before.

So what is The Woman In White? It is a complex story with many layers which are well structured. The story is told from the viewpoint of several narrators who each contribute a part of the story. There are two main narrators. The others mainly fill in gaps so the reader gets the whole picture. The two narrators also pretty much define the nature of the story they tell. The first narrator, who is male, opens the story, then follows the second narrator, who is female, after which the first does the remainder. The first part is for the greater part told as a simple romance which on the background contains a lingering mystery. The latter is what keeps the reader going as the romance might be enjoyed by a female reader, but is nothing special.

The second part however turns everything upside down. It is a pure thriller, dark and captivating, in which the reader has little understanding of all that is happening and only knows that it is bad and nasty. There is great power in the central part of the story and as it is told by a female narrator who is part of the events and much constricted in her actions because of the social limitations she is bound to.

The third part changes style yet again. Now the story becomes more of a tale of mystery as the first two parts have created too many which need to be resolved. Collins takes his time and step by step everything is unveiled, either by chance or by smart reasoning. Even so nothing happens in any way that is predictable. There are some surprising twists which I hadn’t seen coming at all. This novel may have started a new genre but it did not contain any typical clichés we are now familiar with.

Until so far the story. What about the characters? There is not much particular development. Only the main male narrator undergoes a change which certainly improves the story. The others important characters are not so much developed but have great depth. The villains would have been very original were it not that they are one of the few elements which have been copied in later thrillers and mysteries. Even so they have many layers and very interesting. The character that stands out most among the main characters is the female narrator. She is almost manly (like a feminist), a relatively modern woman with great intelligence and understanding and a strong will. She dares and acts and is very likable. She is dominant despite her lesser social position and the rock that holds everything together.

Usually I’m very good at finding flaws and weaknesses in a story and most of my reviews contain much of that. The Woman In White is however a wonderful story with great complexity which is written with a good pace and with many strong twists that will  shock you. The different styles might set different moods of which one may be enjoyed better than the other but each serves it purpose. Because of the romance, the thriller hits harder and deeper and the mystery allows you to recover while still being much engaged. The only thing that makes me wonder about this novel is how little known it is. I only discovered it because I like browsing the available books in the libraries of publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics and Wordsworth Classics and look at books I haven’t heard about. The internet makes this easy to do. I certainly consider this novel to be literature because of the complex structure, the strong characterization and the mid-nineteenth century setting. This novel is certainly highly recommended. Anyone who loves a great book or a thriller or a mystery should certainly pick it up.

 

Fantastic forage

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

One thing that make me hesitate sometimes to buy a second-hand book or a book with a discount is that they are often second or third novels in a series. Even if it’s the first novel there is sometimes the question if one can find the next novels, or at least the same edition. Nowadays with the internet this has become much easier, although finding the other novels at a discount as well can be much harder.

Occasionally I like to browse on the web for some online bookstores and see if they have some nice offers. Recently I bumped into one that sold second-hand books really cheaply with no send costs. They had a large number of books and it took me some time to collect a nice set of books including two complete series. They are all fantasy novels, and 10 in total. First were two novels which I wanted because they completed two series which I had only partially. Among these was the first novel of Legends Of The Red Sun, Nights Of Villjamur (2009) by Mark Charan Newton. I reviewed the next two installments recently. And the other was In The Red Lord’s Reach by Phyllis Eistenstein, a sort of story collection around the minstrel Alaric, of which I had the first novel for some time. I hadn’t been looking for the next installment, but coming across it for a cheap price made me decide to get it.

The biggest of the two series is by Juliet E. McKenna. The Tales Of Einarinn contains 5 novels: The Thief’s Gamble (1999), The Swordsman’s Oath (1999), The Gambler’s Fortune (2000),The Warrior’s Bond (2001) and The Assassin’s Edge (2002). One can image finding a complete set of the same edition on a discount at once it not easy. The series itself seems to have had a relatively limited number of publications as I have looked around for it in the past as I’ve come across singular novels here and there. The second series is the Crossroads Trilogy by Kate Elliott: Spirit Gate (2007), Shadow Gate (2008) and Traitor’s Gate (2009). I have reviewed the seven book series she wrote before this one, The Crown Of Stars. My opinion was mixed, there being good and weak novels among them, but there was sufficient good stuff to give this series a try.

Now that I notice it, 9 of the 10 novels have a female author. Not that that’s strange, but it is peculiar, at least for me. I have in the meantime already started with the Crossroads Trilogy, so more reviews will follow soon.

 

Janny Wurts – Stormwarden

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

It is always a bit of an adventure to read earlier works of an author of which you have read several books. This is because you have no idea if the quality will just be as good as many authors develop their skills over time. Some do wait long enough until they get the first right. In the case of Janny Wurts I was not sure. I have read her still ongoing The Wars Of Light And Shadow series and before that the Empire Trilogy which she co-wrote with Raymond E. Feist. The Empire Trilogy’s style is far more Feist than Wurts, although the plotting and characterization are more up her alley. The even older series that I’ve picked up is The Cycle Of Fire of which Stormwarden (1984) is the first novel. So where does it stand between those two series?

I will start with the good stuff. Stormwarden contains many elements of The Wars Of Light And Shadow. Not to be negative, it is a simpler version, with familiar and clear world-building and a much more limited cast of characters and scope. Wurts works hard at the characterization of her three main characters while the others remain a bit more commonplace and shallow. One interesting character does not get sufficient attention although her behavior is explained at a later stage. Her plot holds up to a good pace although Wurts moves things on a bit too quickly. I will get back on that later. Her prose is on a similar level as her later work, engaging without much fanfare and easy to read.

Unfortunately there are quite some shortcomings. As with The Wars Of Light Of Shadow the good characters with great power have the annoying habit to prefer the moral path instead of the right path, despite the more devastating consequences of these choices.  Of course taking such a path at certain times is good, but when it happens at a stage when the better choice is rather clear then it becomes a flaw. Similarly the bad characters are a bit too evil. There is little gray and much black and white and Wurts drives her characters to even greater extremes.

The most serious shortcoming is the large number of flaws in the story and the serious plotholes. This is so serious because the story is quite plot driven. The characters have little say in what happens to them so they are unable to repair the plot by their actions. Certain things remain unexplained and some key elements simply don’t make sense. The how to the starting premise of the story is not explained and the acts that set the stage for the main story don’t seem to be required at all. The main goal of the bad guys is to obtain something one of the other bad guy has. How and why did that bad guy obtain it? And these are just a few of them. Next to this she places certain convenient developments to take her story to where she wants it. I didn’t get why she did not just start off at a more logical point then to force a quick and unlogical change in her main characters as they lose their old selves with a couple of pages and within a short time. All this may seem to lead to a full story with a ending and openings for the sequel, but Wurts loses time and pages in the later stage which she could have shortened in the early stage for the sake of character development.

So my final opinion is that the shortcomings are greater than the positive elements. Although it is well written and engaging with the fine characterization we are used to in her later, the plot and the story development contain too many flaws and holes to lead to a satisfactory read. Wurts does put in plenty of struggles and dangers which is still a reason why I want to continue reading. I just hope the plot will recover from the shaky startup in the next novel of the series.