Book Review: The Shangani Patrol – John Wilcox

TheShanganiPatrol

There seem to be two main problems with books that claim to be ‘historical fiction.’ The first is, you’ll be pleased to know, simple: that of categorisation. What should be included? Why? Or, more specifically: how historical does historical fiction need to be? How fictional? Where’s the line, and exactly how far over it did Wilbur Smith ultimately go? It seems that ‘historical fiction’ has become something of a nebulous category, regardless of where it started, and so it can be difficult to determine what pieces of literature might rightfully belong to it.

The second problem (I hope you’re appreciating this breathtaking example of my organisational skills) seems to be that ‘historical fiction’ brings to mind – or, at least, to my mind – visions of elderly gentlemen, probably wearing spectacles, and not anything particularly extraordinary.

But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Historical fiction can be exciting. It can be groundbreaking. It can be the best thing you’ve read all week. Maybe it’s not always those things, and like every other genre there are good examples and there are poor examples, but the point here is that it can be. There are no rules against it.

John Wilcox’s historical fiction is a prime example of the good stuff. They focus primarily on British Imperial history, but they read like pure, undiluted adventure stories. They’re interesting, entertaining, clever, and fun, and they take the reader on a journey of discovery as they bring each period to vibrant life. More importantly, however, they never scrimp on the historical fact, ensuring that each novel, while undoubtedly fictional, has a strong foundation in real events. Rich with a winning combination of fast-paced action and quieter, reflective scenes, Wilcox’s novels go the whole nine yards, and then at least three more, at the double.

The Shangani Patrol is a particularly good installment in a series of particularly good books. The main character, Simon Fonthill, and his omnipresent best friend, Jenkins, return to Africa initially out of a somewhat misplaced desire to go on holiday – ‘somewhat misplaced’ since Simon and Jenkins are well-established trouble magnets – but wind up becoming involved in the escalating local conflict, and soon enough, Fonthill and his accompanying band of merry men (and women) are thoroughly immersed in the action.

Anyone familiar to the series will recognise the formula, as the same formula structures the entirety of the Fonthill series. It is not, however, tedious, because Wilcox’s application of the formula is, with each book, given fresh life through his considerable attention to detail, historical fact, and Wilcox’s intriguing characterisation.

Alice, in particular, is a favourite of mine. A childhood friend of Simon’s, she follows her dream to become a freelance reporter despite significant and constant disapproval, subsequently proves herself on a number of difficult campaigns, marries Simon, and continues to do exactly what she wants to. Their marriage is nothing less than a partnership, and although Simon frequently despairs at how readily Alice will wander into danger, he soon realises that his protests are falling on deaf ears.

Alice is something of an unusual character, given Wilcox’s chosen time period, but she is not unbelievable, and to read about a young, talented women finding her way in a world undoubtedly made for men, in a book that claims to be historical fiction, is certainly something I’m willing to support.

Wilcox deals with other stereotypes in a similar fashion. Fonthill and Jenkins are undoubtedly the heroes of the series, prevailing against terrible odds in equally terrible conditions, but they are not the all-powerful British soldiers one might expect, but, rather, ordinary, fallible men with both strengths and weaknesses. Fonthill is a gifted strategist and leader, but a mediocre shot and even worse brawler, for example, and Jenkins, in turn, is a crack shot and excellent horseman, but has a tendency to get badly lost, and isn’t particularly fond of large bodies of water. Heroes they might be, but gods they are not, and in characterising them thusly, Wilcox arguably brings greater believability to his novels.

To conclude: these books deal with historical events, but they do so in an entertaining, accessible, intelligent manner, and they’re well worth a read for anyone interested in the genre, but hoping to avoid a textbook full of names and dates.

Book Review: Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam

Okay.

Confession time.

I haven’t – believe it or not – read many books about trains. I wasn’t a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine as a child (I know you’re outraged, but please bear with me, I do in fact have a point, which I am aware is somewhat uncharacteristic, but is, nonetheless, true), and when I had to study the influence of the railway in regards to the growth of the Woollen Industry – studying History at school was exactly as fun as it sounds – doing so was far more of a chore than a pleasure.

However.

Roughly ten pages into Raising Steam, I realised that I was reading one of the best books I’ve had the fortune to come across in quite some time. I love it, and I loved reading it (always a benefit when the ‘it’ in question is a book). In fact, I loved reading it so much that I actually made myself slow down when I reached the halfway point, so that I could spend more time reading it.

(Yes, I am a semi-independent, functioning adult. Yes, I forget that when I become immersed in a particularly good book and subsequently have to face the void that comes at the end of it)

So, why did I like it so much? Well, surprise surprise, Raising Steam isn’t really about trains. They feature heavily in the story, but so do the city of Ankh-Morpork, the always-fantastic Adora Belle Dearheart, and the sliding rule, to name but a few. Really – or, at least, from my perspective, a perspective I am sure that you all wish you had all-hours access to – Raising Steam isn’t really about trains, or industry, but the associated themes of progress, change, and invention, and, more importantly, because this is, of course, a Pratchett novel, the people dragged into the fray (in Moist von Lipwig’s case, quite literally).

 

Plot:

In Raising Steam, an enterprising sort of fellow named Dick Simnel comes to Ankh-Morpork with a few bright ideas, a flat cap, and a working steam engine. There, he intends to make his fortune, and after partnering with Harry King, employing a novelty – a truthful, dependable lawyer – and finding Moist von Lipwig at his disposal, it seems clear that he’s going to succeed. But this is Ankh-Morpork, and the wonderful citizens of that equally wonderful city, whether they be human, dwarf, goblin or troll, are not quite sure that that’s what they want. What follows is a fast-paced, clever story of invention, intrigue, and many other things beginning with the other similarly interesting letters of the alphabet, and it’s a story that I cannot recommend too highly.

Raising Steam is rollicking and fast-paced, wildly clever and wildly entertaining, and the speed with which it moves is, arguably – hello, yes, I studied English at uni – reminiscent of the movement of a train itself. Like a train, the narrative starts slowly and gradually increases speed, and like a train, the narrative has a destination that is neither rendered unimportant nor forgotten despite multiple stops made on the way (unless you’re having a really bad day).

Raising Steam is a novel blessed with both a main, over-arching plot and a number of side-plots that complement each other wonderfully without becoming over-complicated, inaccessible, and frankly rather ridiculous (yes, I am aware of the irony of claiming something might be ridiculous when I run a blog that is nothing if not the very definition of the word). It begins as a story of the origin of the railway and associated inventions in Discworld, another step forwards in the often-dangerous name of progress – and Vetinari, of course, because this is Ankh-Morpork, and with all due respect a benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant – and becomes an important side-note in the political movements of the Low King and a feather in Moist von Lipwig’s probably rather shiny hat, to, again, name but a few, and even involves a goblin or twenty, who apparently enjoy showing wannabe clacks-wreckers the error of their ways.

As I’m pretty sure I’ve said already – and at length, but I don’t intend to apologise – I love it. Everything just works. The pace, the jokes, the dialogue, the characters – everything. Raising Steam is a masterful, wonderful creation, and an absolute asset to any bookshelf.

Characters:

Naturally, as soon as I saw that Moist von Lipwig would be making his glorious return in Raising Steam, I was hooked. I would have purchased the book anyway – a Pratchett book is not to be ignored, and woe betide you who make the attempt – but that name ensured that I was extremely interested in discovering when I might get my greedy little hands on it. Moist von Lipwig remains one of my favourite characters in the renowned Discworld series – though, notably, I dislike none of them, which is something of a first for me, as I tend to react badly to at least one or two characters in every book I read, it’s practically habit by now – and he brings a special note to this special book. He’s funny, clever, and as wonderful as ever – yes, I am extremely proud of that – and, undoubtedly an asset to an already excellent story. Furthermore, his frequent interactions with Vetinari, a constant across many of Pratchett’s books provide a regular source of entertainment.

In other words: yes. I’d buy the t-shirt. Probably also the bookmark. Definitely the mug.

Aside from Moist – apparently, I am now mature enough to acknowledge that there are other characters – I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the goblins. Ankh-Morpork is a diverse, equal-opportunities city that allows anyone and everyone to make their fortune – it’s difficult to forget Dibbler and his notorious sausages – yet the goblins run into difficulties, simply because they’re goblins, and as such not like everyone else. It seems obvious to me that such moments naturally bring to mind ‘real life’ problems of diversity and the treatment of relative minorities, even within societies widely considered to be ‘progressive,’ and is not, in Raising Steam, simply evidence of an author attempting to reach a wider audience by acknowledging wider issues, but is, rather, relevant to the plot in entirety, given the aforementioned themes of change and progress.

(In the absence of essays to write, I do of course turn to my blog, and, of course, you, my lovely captive audience).

Final thoughts:

This review is too long already – I’m becoming self-aware, I hope you’re proud – so I’ll keep it brief. Raising Steam is, ultimately, a good book in a series of good books. It may not be part of the canon, and it’s probably not going to turn up on the syllabus, but, all things being equal (yes, I took English and Philosophy), it should. It has a strong, interesting plot, multiple connected side-plots, wonderfully varied, entertaining characters, and a vampire or two that have chosen coffee over blood.

Nonetheless.

I could stand (sit) here all day listing reasons as to why you should read (and love) it, and maybe (probably), it won’t make even the slightest difference. The decision is, in the end, yours. But if you want that decision to be a good one – of course you do – then I suggest that you read Raising Steam at the earliest opportunity.

You might just surprise yourself.

Book Review: Arcanum – Simon Morden

Arcanum

Morden’s Arcanum is a story of magic, power, and politics set in a fictional version of Carinthia. In this Carinthia, there is not only magic – hello epic fantasy – but also hexmasters, who wield said magic while aggressively dominating the political and martial landscape. (They also dominate the ‘creepiness’ category, but that’s a different story for a different day and, arguably, a different blog. I am, after all, a professional, and would not presume to comment on such a disreputable category).

It’s a story of power plays and intrigue, with a well-defined, well-established setting that has all the hallmarks of a fantasy novel – including but not limited to the occasional wayward unicorn, usually dead – and is a worthy contribution to the genre. It’s also well-structured, a very interesting read, and, last but not least, plays host to a number of impressively varied heroes, from a young Jewish girl to a scarred, jaded huntsman, without ever drawing seriously upon the bog-standard ‘tough guy’ persona.

There’s a lot of it – Arcanum is a large text – but at no point does it feel tedious, even if holding it up did make my wrist ache, and I don’t have weak wrists.

(Generally)

Plot:

At the beginning of Arcanum, a bunch of things happen. Most importantly, however – or, at least, most importantly from the perspective of the snappy little summary I’m about to provide you with, you lucky thing – magic vanishes, and, slowly but surely, it becomes obvious just how dependent Carinthia is on magic, as the entire Kingdom essentially grinds to a halt (including the library, which becomes the most significant problem, an aspect of the novel that pleased me greatly). The rest of the novel is then concerned with ‘what happens next, and the equally slow return to order, as orchestrated by the three aforementioned heroes (okay, so it’s not as snappy as it could be, but I think it works).

This isn’t a fast-paced novel, but that is to its benefit. Each scene is given just enough time for it to seem significant to the story and to the characters, and the action scenes, which are, arguably, extremely well-structured, are not prioritised over the equally important emotional scenes that are often pivotal in regards to character development, which can be rare when one is dealing with epic fantasy. Additionally, those scenes are varied in nature, structure, and length, and the level of detail applied to each ensures that they never grow tedious.

In fact, the same can be said for the novel in entirety, as it is a long read, but is a long, intriguing read comprised of several interlocking plot threads, all of which operate independently, but with clear links to the central narrative. It keeps the reader interested, keeps the story moving, and ensures that instead of one main character dominating, well, everything, there are many (who take turns. Perhaps they need a rota).

Characters:

This is undoubtedly an epic fantasy novel – well, Amazon agrees with me, and I’m inclined to agree with Amazon, the source of all knowledge when I was purchasing the books I needed for university – but one of the main characters is female, Jewish, and – now here’s the real shocker, so brace yourself – mortal. To generalise hugely – sorry – the female characters that turn up in epic fantasy novels are often magical or otherwise unusual, and are usually singularly attractive. But Sophia is human, completely involved in the human world around her, and is respected not for any alleged beauty, but because of her strength, intelligence, and bravery.

(If there’s a fan club, count me in).

Alongside Sophia stars Peter Büber, the scarred huntsman who has lost several fingers, and who exhibits, on several occasions, insecurities in regards to his appearance and himself in general, and Thaler, a librarian with an eye for inventiveness and who prefers books to, well, everything. At first glance, this is a markedly unusual group, and given that the novel doesn’t involve Thaler magically developing the ability to use a sword, or Büber excelling at anything and everything – his illiteracy is an important plot point on more than one occasion – alongside obtaining the interest of every woman in a fifty mile radius – even more so.

Final thoughts:

I was surprised by Arcanum. I hadn’t heard of Simon Morden before I read it – and I purchased it pretty much on a whim, because I tend to make somewhat erratic decisions when books of the new variety are involved – and I discovered about ten pages in, that I had definitely been missing out. Now that I’ve finished Arcanum, I’m looking into getting my (greedy) hands on several more of Morden’s books.

To conclude: I highly recommend Arcanum for any and every fan of epic fantasy and/or anything with a Kingdom and giants.

Fashion: a semi-thoughtful foray into the difficulties associated with shoe shopping

DSC00486

Originally, this blog post was entitled: ‘The intricacies of fashion from the perspective of a 5’2 blonde with a fondness for energetic dance classes,’ which says everything you need to know about my previous run-ins with the aforementioned ‘fashion.’ I scrapped that, however, primarily because it was too long, but also because it sounded as if I intended to start a bizarre journal entry detailing bad fashion mistakes, and as much as that sounds rather fun, it’s not something currently at the top of my to-do list.

Shoes, on the other hand, are.

Shoes are great. Whether they’re a fashion statement, a practical necessity, or picked out just because of the way they look with those jeans, they’re there to serve your needs, whatever those needs might be. They’re dynamic, versatile, and the fashion conscious person’s best friend, and even when they’ve suddenly and quite unexpectedly become a problem – think thin white shoes on muddy ground – they’re always there for you, and, to be honest, that was your fault, not theirs.

However.

As I mentioned previously, I’m 5’2. Which is, in the grand scheme of things, reasonably short. A nurse once said that I make Tom Cruise look tall, which, to be entirely honest, was easily the worst part of that day.. To clarify: I need heels. Preferably high ones. Possibly even stilts. My friends are all of the considerably taller variety, which I have been semi-reliably informed is actually the ‘average’ height, and, as such, when I stand next to them in flats, I might as well be a gnome.

Not ideal.

Compounding the problem is the fact that I have a bad record with the aforementioned ‘high’ heels. I have a minor joint problem that mainly effect my knees, and it gets particularly bad if, yes, you’ve guessed it, I wear heels for long periods of time. To sum up: I need at least four-inch heels to reach ‘average’ height, but I can’t manage them.

Forget it.

So what’s the solution?

  1. Wear flats. Abandon my insecurities over my height (or lack of), and settle for the comfortable option. There are many lovely flat shoes around, so it’s surely just a matter of finding the rights ones. Compromising in the name of comfort doesn’t mean throwing out my sense of style (if my fashion choices can be considered to even slightly contribute to a ‘sense of style,’ that is).
  2. Wear low heels. Potentially kitten heels. That way I get some extra height, and the opportunity to appreciate a really rather pretty pair of shoes.
  3. Wear higher heels, and ignore my feet in the name of fashion, height, and looking as un-gnome-like as possible.

Thoughts?