Book review: Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

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“Without this child, we shall all die.” Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight. Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences far beyond her own world…”

(Read more here.)


Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the first book in the series entitled His Dark Materials, is about a young girl named Lyra Belacqua. A ward of Jordan College, she knows the parameters of her world well, and spends her time almost entirely as she wishes, acquiescing only rarely and very reluctantly to the instructions conferred upon her by a variety of well-meaning if usually distracted authority figures. When children go missing, however, plucked uncaringly from their lives, Lyra’s world changes. Finding herself too close to comfort to those responsible, her principles – and loyalty to her best friend, Roger – demand action.

When I first read Northern Lights, I was enchanted. The plot, the characters, the setting, and the number and nature of the ideas lending weight and coherency to the entirety were a veritable feast for the imagination, and the novel had admirable depth and undeniable quality. I was hooked from the very first page, and held spellbound until the very last.

That is to say: Northern Lights trounced even the greatest of my expectations.

A quietly undisclosed number of years later, a re-read has proven that Northern Lights is just as enjoyable, and just as relevant in its approach and themes now as it was when I was first fortunate enough to read it. Readers of all ages continue to love and devour it, and such wide and lasting appeal should not – and cannot – be underestimated.

Northern Lights isn’t needlessly complex or disappointingly simple. It is clever and accessible, never condescends to younger readers, and postulates the concepts that form the foundation of the narrative in an understandable and engaging fashion. Aiding comprehension is the fact that they are presented to the reader in intuitive terms by the protagonist, Lyra, and the rich, logical details are easily enough to satisfy even the most discerning mind. Lyra’s youth and refreshingly direct approach make her an ideal character to shepherd readers through Pullman’s world, and the possibility of thorough engagement with the protagonist’s perspective encourages an immersive experience.

Thematically, Northern Lights has broad scope, from the representation and perception of children, and of youthful characters, to the ramifications of pursuing unchartered waters and unprecedented, live-changing, discoveries. The protagonist, Lyra, proves to be a useful vehicle in the exploration of such topics, for her practical, no-nonsense approach and unflappable sense of fairness cast the inconsistencies and uncertainties behind popular assumptions into sharp relief, and she regularly challenges groundless prejudices. An obvious example is the moment in which Lyra played a pivotal role in liberating Iorek from his captors – while many of the other characters were hesitant to take a stand, or concerned by his ferocity, Lyra just saw a brave, proud, misunderstood creature that had been treated with needless cruelty, and knew that she had to offer what assistance she could.

Importantly, Northern Lights isn’t a feel-good romp. While it is definitely a tale of adventure and grand exploits, helmed by a young, heroic protagonist, it is also poignant and sensitive, moderating victory and achievement with prevailing loss and realistic complexity. The destruction wrought upon the lives of the unfortunate children cruelly experimented upon is undeniable, and while Lyra succeeds in liberating them from the facility in which they were being held, the damage cannot be reversed. Further, she ultimately delivers her best friend, Roger, into the greedy clutches of Lord Asriel, as a result of which he tragically perishes.

Roger’s death is an important plot point, propelling Lyra into a startling new world, freshly determined to pursue and fight for her beliefs, and to discover more of what she was so ignominiously introduced to. It also provides evidence for the maturity of Pullman’s approach to a narrative primarily populated by youthful characters, as difficult scenes are neither sugar-coated beyond all recognition nor needlessly, starkly harsh. The vulnerability of children – especially to adults – is recognised, but so is their strength and their tenacity, within realistic bounds.

It would be remiss of me, even foolish, to conclude a discussion on the merits of Northern Lights without reference to “daemons”. From the experiments conducted by the Oblation Board into the possibility of separating children from their daemons, to the armoured bear wishing to obtain one so that he might become human, “daemons” are foregrounded in Northern Lights, presenting an important aspect of the narrative, and an interesting addition to the development of the characters. A daemon is the physical manifestation of the human soul, visible in the form of an animal, and they vary in accordance with the person with which they are linked, changing constantly throughout childhood, and settling upon a final form during puberty. Assumptions can be made about personality and mood from a daemon, and there are strict, unspoken rules against touching that of another person. Pullman’s development of his characters involves establishing their daemons, and as such it is an exciting and inspiring addition to a narrative already rich in detail. Their inclusion remains a unique and impressive concept when considered in the wider context of fantasy novels.

Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is a clever, imaginative novel, filled to the brim with intriguing ideas and many details capable of engaging and inspiring readers of many ages. The language is, on occasion, plain, but never tedious, and lacks neither detail nor rich description. Pullman’s world building is arguably my favourite aspect, but everything from the structure of the plot to the variety of the characters is enjoyable. As such, I am happy to give Northern Lights 5 out of 5 stars.

Bookish round-up: January 2017

I finished just two books in the cold, unfriendly month of January, both by the incomparable J. V. Jones.

I am always amazed by Jones’ flawless world-building, and the uncompromisingly high quality of her work. Her novels arguably fall into the bracket of traditional (or epic) fantasy, but there are no embarrassing instances of inexplicably all-powerful ‘mysterious’ men, or tiresome heroes somehow able to wield a sword with unbeatable skill despite being in possession of no prior experience and little physical strength. Jones’ work is complex and nuanced, her characters are realistically diverse, and her prose is immersive.

To clarify:

Books read: 2

Started: A Song of Ice and Fire by G. R. R. Martin

Favourite read: 

J. V. Jones’ A Cavern of Black Ice

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“In Spire Vanis, an uncrowned ruler steals magic from tortured captives, while an innocent girl is haunted by nightmares of ice. On the frigid steppes, two brothers find their kinsmen slain by swords that draw no blood. At a remote homestead, a hardened warrior leaves his family to follow a raven’s summons.

And in a deadly wilderness where nature and the gods have no mercy, two young fugitives will confront the unfolding of an apocalyptic prophecy…”

Read more about A Cavern of Black Ice from the source.

A Cavern of Black Ice is an unforgiving, atmospheric tale. The known world hangs in the balance, teetering on the thinnest of edges, and Jones’ characters, irrespective of the sides on which they stand, or the purity of their motives, find no easy successes. They suffer often and harshly, victories are ordinarily fleeting, and those most deserving of kindness and peace are rarely fortunate enough to find it. Hideous prophecy compels action, not laxity, and seems ill-disposed to look kindly upon reluctance.

I would strongly recommend any novel written by J. V. Jones, but A Cavern of Black Ice is a particular favourite, for the prose, the characters – Raif Sevrance, skilled and knowledgeable in many areas, painfully helpless in others, and consistently tortured by an act denounced by the traditions of his people as an unforgivable betrayal – and, of course, the unarguable vibrancy of the setting.


Check out my most recent book review here.

 

Top reads of 2016

It was long and emotional, but the 2016 book year (that is, the most important kind of year) is now a thing of the much loved past. All that remains is the opportunity to reflect, and, of course, to make plans for 2017, however cautious and however loosely defined. Whether this involves committing to a new and improved reading goal, adding several exciting new titles to your ever-increasing TBR pile, or resorting to making your beverage of choice so that you might stave off the responsibility of compiling a 2017 reading list for just a little longer, change is upon us.

I pledged to read a grand total of 50 books in 2016, a goal that I later decided, while languishing painfully in the midst of a particularly long novel, had been innocently meant, but ludicrously ambitious. As it was, however, despite the occasional moment of uncertainty, through a startlingly beneficial combination of delayed train journeys and no small amount of stubborn commitment, I reached my goal, reading a wonderful 51 books.

Are you proud? I’m proud.

I enjoyed many of the books that my greedy little hands alighted upon, regretted my interest in a couple, and even abandoned some, too profoundly unimpressed to read any further. To my considerable surprise, I delved into more than one classic of my own free will – something of a novelty after my lengthy stint studying English Literature – rediscovered my love of sci-fi/fantasy, and even took the occasional cautious sojourn into the realm of non-fiction, buoyed by a similar compilation of Terry Pratchett’s work.

I did, naturally, have favourites. Some were unexpected – penned by authors I had not previously discovered, or structured in a manner that I do not usually find enjoyable – and others were familiar titles taken from the shelf for a comfortable re-read. They were as varied as they were numerous, and in attempting to pick my top read of 2016, I, well. Let’s just say that I struggled. A little.

(By that I mean: a lot.)

So I decided to pick a top ten, from which I could derive a winner. They are as follows (in order of consumption):

  1. The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan
  2. Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
  3. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
  4. The Vagrant by Peter Newman
  5. Treachery by S. J. Parris
  6. Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon
  7. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  8. The Trees by Ali Shaw
  9. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  10. Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

From this list, I decided, with some solemnity, that my top read of 2016 had to be a book that was particularly memorable, and that I thought was genuinely incredible. It didn’t need to have won any awards, but it had to have a quality or aspect that more than adequately distinguished it from the rest, and that rendered it an appropriate occupier of the pedestal on which it would remain for the entirety of 2017. The ten titles listed above were considered at length.

Finally (drum roll please), I decided that my top read of 2016 had to be China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.

Perdido Street Station is an incredible novel. From the profound diversity of the characters to the vivid grittiness of the landscape, it is well written, expertly crafted, and brilliantly portrayed. The imagery seethes with life, the prose is astonishing, and each chapter is more intense than the last, encouraging feelings of suspense, compassion and even heartbreak with undeniable skill. It is impossible to pretend at indifference when reading Perdido Street Station, and the novel is so richly detailed and so wonderfully immersive that there would be little value in even attempting to.

I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough.

Read more in my review here.

As for 2017, I do not yet know where my interests will take me, or what books I am likely to enjoy above all others. I do know, however, that my TBR pile contains the sequel to Perdido Street Station (which I clutched lovingly for some time), and that 2017 has the potential to be a fantastic book year.

I will always be grateful for the authors that make this possible, and whose work continues to inspire and delight.

Which book did you most enjoy reading in 2016?


Check out my most recent review here.

Bookish round-up: December

Books read: 4

  • Skin and Bone (Cragg and Fidelis Mystery #4) by Robin Blake
    Genres: Mystery, crime
    Rating: 3/5
  • Wideacre (Wideacre #1) by Philippa Gregory
    Genre: Historical fiction
    Rating: 4/5

Favourite read:

Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre

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“Beatrice Lacey, as strong-minded as she is beautiful, refuses to conform to the social customs of her time.

Destined to lose her family name and beloved Wideacre estate once she is wed, Beatrice will use any means necessary to protect her ancestral heritage. Seduction, betrayal, even murder – Beatrice’s passion is without apology or conscience. ‘She is a Lacey of Wideacre,’ her father warns, ‘and whatever she does, however she behaves, will always be fitting.’ Yet even as Beatrice’s scheming seems about to yield her dream, she is haunted by the one living person who knows the extent of her plans…and her capacity for evil. Sumptuously set in Georgian England, Wideacre is intensely gripping, rich in texture, and full of colour and authenticity. It is a saga as irresistible in its singular magic as its heroine.”

Read more from the source here.


Check out my most recent review here.

Book Review: Dear Amy – Helen Callaghan

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My relationship with crime fiction, at one time both congenial and seemingly long-lasting, has suffered. We used to be very close (to the unutterable dismay of my presiding bank account), but, more recently, I decided that the characters are frequently too predictable, the details of the plot all too easy to anticipate and rarely well depicted, and, finally, in more general terms, that crime fiction is a genre that yields too fully and too regularly to tedious habit, and, subsequently, that it is one that I wanted very little to do with.

In short: I was considering divorce.

Although Dear Amy falls firmly into this bracket, it sounded both intriguing and unusual, a more creative contribution to a genre occasionally guilty of stagnancy. Having read the synopsis, I decided that even if it did ultimately prove to suffer the aforementioned weaknesses, reading it would be, at worst, a brief return to a genre that is in possession of many glorious attributes, but that no longer meets my expectations. A throwback, if you will.

Drum roll please.

I genuinely enjoyed it. Helen Callaghan’s Dear Amy is well written, nicely structured, and cleverly paced, and could quite justifiably be provided with an admirable position on even the most highly regarded (and likely heaped) bookshelf. A startlingly compulsive read, it is assured and mature, neither circumventing in-depth explorations of the emotionally fraught scenes that feature in the narrative, nor avoiding delving into the painful and often far-reaching ramifications of the multitude of base cruelties that give rise to them. A suspenseful, gripping story, it is delivered with both delicacy and sensitivity.

(To paraphrase: I liked the thing.)

Dear Amy’s protagonist is Margot Lewis, a teacher and newspaper agony aunt. Her life is more or less predictable, aside from the unpleasantness of an impending separation from her husband, until she receives a strange letter addressed to ‘Amy,’ claiming to have been written by a victim of a kidnapping that took place many years ago. Margot initially assumes it to be a hoax made in spectacularly bad taste, but as more letters arrive, each more intense and desperate than the last, she is unable to dismiss them as meaningless. The possibility of a connection between the letters and a more recent disappearance is too important to disregard.

The answers that Margot finds, however, take a form she never expected, and the consequences for her own life are unutterably and decidedly severe. A vast, jagged hole is torn in her small, more or less predictable world, and emerging unscathed and unchanged from the ordeal proves to be impossible. With time running short and lives at stake, Margot struggles not to lose all sense of herself as everything she values and understands is thrown into painful confusion, and the actions she is obliged to take waver helplessly into dubious moral ground. Dear Amy‘s narrative is rife with deep, dark secrets and the darker predilections that give rise to them, and Margot cannot remain detached.

However, while the characters are realistic, often admitting to uncertainty and never devoid of weaknesses, Dear Amy is, unfortunately, comprised of rather too many gratuitous crime fiction stereotypes, to which the aforementioned moral uncertainty is an obvious example. Margot is easily identifiable as the tortured hero, replete with a tragic past and an absent family. These are familiar details, and lack originality.

Further, the novel begins with the conclusion of Margot’s marriage and ends with a burgeoning romance, a subplot that arguably offers little that is particularly original to the plot. It felt unnecessary and a little bit ridiculous, for the plot would have worked equally well in its absence, and while its inclusion was perhaps indicative of Margot’s eventual success and renewed certainty, I felt it detracted from the evocative imagery of Margot’s solitary struggle. Thematically, Dear Amy focuses on Margot’s journey, and the hard, uphill climb to the hidden truth. With the inclusion of the male romantic lead, her arc loses strength, for it is no longer herself that she depends on. This is again a familiar aspect of crime fiction, in which the protagonist is often paired off.

Fortunately, Callaghan’s prose offers no small remedy. Descriptive and intense, Dear Amy is vivid and immersive, and stacked high with explosive imagery and intense language. Some crime fiction novels suffer from a sparse style and a bland setting, given only some measure of life by the details of the plot and the driving force of the protagonist’s often-abrasive personality. Dear Amy is the opposite, powerfully written and expertly structured, with every aspect encouraging engagement and exciting suspense. The characters are realistic and varied, and her plot unusually structured.

I enjoyed the language, the imagery, and the broad strokes of the plot. I thought the concept was original and nicely crafted, and that it was suspenseful without being crass. However, I found some aspects of the plot to be too predictable, the romantic subplot uncomfortable at best, and the constant adherence to crime fiction stereotypes neither laudable nor unique. Finally, while Margot was an interesting and undeniably sympathetic character, she was too isolated, and very difficult to relate to.

(Maybe it’s a character flaw. Maybe it’s – never mind.)

Helen Callaghan is a brand new voice in the crime fiction world with an impressive turn of phrase and a brilliantly creative outlook on a genre that often suffers from descriptive brevity. Unfortunately, Dear Amy suffers from a number of predominant weaknesses alongside its many strengths, and as such, despite finding the plot genuinely riveting, I could only give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Book review: Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

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Perdido Street Station is evocative, hard-hitting, and startlingly intense. Wonderfully detailed, it is rich with explanations and explorations, and both structured and solidified by a strong dedication to establishing the facts on which the story hinges. There are no plot holes and no attempt to brush over details with the hand-wavy dubiousness that occasionally rears its extremely ugly head (no, uglier than that), and Miéville’s incredible prose is matched only by the truly admirable lengths to which he reaches in presenting and bringing to life his vibrant setting.

With impressively varied vocabulary and a plot that practically oozes from the pages, Perdido Street Station is provocative in its content, intriguing in its structure, and gloriously imaginative in its detail, rife with constant complications and frequent misdirection. Unpredictable and often brutal, the events of the novel leave no room for sentimentality (and even less for the shining hero), but yield not to the temptation to shock the readers above and beyond what is strictly necessary. There are no needlessly escalated scenes, and despite not inconsiderable savagery, the content is fundamentally believable, in the context both of the unfolding plot and the setting to which the reader is thoroughly introduced.

In Perdido Street Station, the main character, Isaac, an innovative scientist, offers his not inconsiderable services to a strange, isolated creature motivated by just one thought – to recover the wings that were torn from him as punishment. The circumstances are murky, and the potential consequences even harder to parse, but Isaac is drawn irrevocably in by the ambrosia of new discoveries, and by the exciting prospect of delving into a topic that has yet to be adequately plumbed, and he agrees to do what he can.

He furthers his stipulated intention with confidence, wielding resources and connections without impunity. In doing so, an unanticipated chain of events means that Isaac unwittingly unleashes a creature far more powerful and dangerous than he knows, to tragic effect. Removing the threat calls for the combined efforts of many, and no few sacrifices, but abandoning the matter to the attention of others is untenable, when so many have fallen by the wayside. Isaac does not, strictly speaking, consider himself to be responsible, but he does what he can, regardless.

Miéville leaves no stone unturned (and they are wonderful stones) in his smooth prose. From his depiction of the setting to his extensive character development, he is in every respect a master at work. New Crobuzon, the city in which the events of the novel take place, is carefully defined and fully explained, as are the characters that live in its difficult environs. From the historical details to cultural shifts, New Crobuzon is richly inhabited, and should the reader be so inclined (I am absolutely always inclined, and cordially invite you to join me), the unrelenting amount of detail ensures that imagining all that transpires is no difficult task, aided not insignificantly by Miéville’s varied imagery. Reading Perdido Street Station is a singularly unforgettable experience.

The plot is, arguably, taken in broad strokes, simple and identifiable, but its execution is unparalleled, and the twists and turns to which it plays amiable host are decidedly unpredictable, taking the parameters of the novel far wider than an original impression of the plot might suggest. Perdido Street Station is not a novel that would benefit anyone to underestimate (you have been warned), and to bypass the spectacular content on that basis would be a colossal miscalculation.

The characters are detailed and extraordinarily well explored, and their personalities, motivations, and deepest, darkest desires are discernible from the text without being explicitly and/or clumsily shoved into the foreground. The reader is able to understand and connect to the various characters and the roiling setting with ease, and Miéville’s distinctive adjustments in vocabulary and sentence structure help to underline changes in perspective, thus aiding comprehension and eliciting a sense of sturdy realism. The most obvious instance of character development occurs, predictably, with Isaac, the protagonist, but it is by no means solely restricted to him.

Morality is a complex and unforgiving topic in the dark streets and dubious alleys of New Crobuzon, and survival so often predominates over friendliness, in accordance with practicality. Moral decisions are complicated by clashing cultures and personalities and thrown into vast uncertainty by conflicting personal beliefs, and the decisions made by the characters that err on the side of the angels – that is, Isaac, and the team he builds to fight the creatures that plague the city – arguably give rise to the most shocking ramifications, justified somewhat inadequately by reference to some vague greater good. As the catalyst of the novel’s events, Isaac can be interpreted as singularly responsible for the destruction, and his subsequent actions are not entirely morally pure.

This is not a world in which there are easy choices, and by generating unavoidable complexity, Miéville arguably presents Isaac as, on one hand, the hero that helps purge New Crobuzon of the creatures that stalk it, but, equally validly, on the other as a destructive force whose thoughtless experimentation and belief in his own superiority are directly responsible for the terrible situation in the first place. Miéville’s characters resist categorisation, and Perdido Street Station avoids the pitfall of presenting easily definable moral decisions and behaviours based solely on the notion of a ‘greater good’ and absent of a mature understanding that the consequences rarely behave in accordance with this prior determination of black and white morality.

I loved Perdido Street Station. I lost myself in its pages, and never really wanted to emerge. There are no happy endings, and the subject does not lend itself to easy, unbothered reading, but it would be a lesser novel if it had those things. It is truly extraordinary and startlingly evocative, pulling no punches and offering no apologies. It is also well rounded and admirable in its detail and structure, and the tremendously varied vocabulary, alongside an unutterably vibrant setting, ensures that reading it is an experience that registers on many exciting and unforgettable levels.

This is, in short, the kind of novel that I could genuinely conceive of reading multiple times, and discovering something – a detail, an idea, even a particularly intuitive description – wholly new and exciting each and every time. Reading it was an honour, and it is of course well worth 5 stars. For any fans of solid, immersive, and exquisitely imaginative fiction, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Review: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy’s War and Peace is intimidating. It’s a classic with a reputation, and that reputation makes no allowances for hesitancy or uncertainty. It does not merely sit on shelves, it looms, silently insinuating the unutterable ineptitude of the reader that passes it by.

Reading War and Peace is a commitment that is for neither the faint-hearted nor the weak-wristed.

With a high page count and ridiculously tiny text (yes, alliteration intended, and yes, it is one of those), War and Peace is a weighty tome, and looks rather like the kind of literature that Hermione Granger would undoubtedly sail through in the first week of her lengthy holiday, but that is considerably less accessible to the likes of you, me, and Ron Weasley. With so many full pages of dense, unapologetically detailed text, it arguably doesn’t look so much like the book to read exquisitely casually atop the sunbed, as the book which might usefully be used to prop the balcony door open against a particularly strong breeze.

(Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.)

However, while that would be useful on a practical level, it would be a genuine shame to miss out on reading War and Peace just because it looks a little daunting. The subject matter, genre, and style make for neither an easy read nor a simplistic narrative, in parts it is long-winded and difficult (on this I can be relied upon, as I am frequently both long-winded and difficult) and it often veers into philosophical discussions that are at best only tangentially connected, and that could easily have been removed without jeopardising the coherence of the text. But it is also a startlingly compulsive read, and extraordinarily clever, and I enjoyed every line of the intriguing philosophical interludes.

Tolstoy hits hard at often unquestioned concepts and ideals, investigating both practical principles and more abstract topics. He avoids sugar-coating the action, does not lend it irrevocable justification, and directs intense criticism on anything that may plausibly be accepted without what he considers to be due consideration. Tolstoy’s main focus in War and Peace is the pervasively unpleasant influence of war, but with admirable precision he pays heed both to the exquisitely fine details of the private lives of the large cast of characters, and to the more general movements and shifts of a society obliged by unhappy circumstance to change, transform, and adapt.

In the context of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia, War and Peace is a brilliantly intelligent exposition of the widespread and undeniably colossal effect of war on people in particular and societies in general, regardless of nationality or gender. The war is a shadow cast over thousands of lives, and no amount of marriages, balls, and exciting excursions to the theatre are capable of lifting it. It is discussed at every gathering by a vast range of very different characters, criticised and reconsidered endlessly, and provides the catalyst by which many friendships suffer, harmed by a fundamental difference in opinion.

Tolstoy’s character development is both widespread and significant, emerging throughout the lengthy novel. Pierre engages (helplessly) in marriage, briefly devotes himself to Masonic principles, and after being incarcerated by the French, discovers a kind of inner happiness. From allowing other people to run and influence his life, he learns how to become the master of his own destiny, and eventually engages in marriage for a second time, much more successfully. He learns and changes and develops ever-maturing thoughts and ideas, and finds a way to exist that suits him, discovering the elusive goal of true contentment.

(Pierre, you are both a delight and an inspiration.)

Prince Andrei loses certainty after certainty in the harsh world of war. He leaves the family home to pursue a career and dedicate himself to what he believes in, but finds himself looking constantly to differing perspectives for that one perfect idea, the following of which would allow him to be both happy and at peace. He struggles frequently with thoughts of commitment, and steadily loses the position of firm certainty from which he used to depend wholly upon.

These are only two examples, and throughout War and Peace there are many instances of changing moral attitudes, differing approaches, and shifts in perspective, short-term and long-term. This is character development at its best, and even at his most abstract, Tolstoy does not fail to deliver.

(Characters, not pizza.)

Ultimately, then, I liked the detail, the character development, the writing, and the philosophical musings in War and Peace. It was compulsive, intriguing reading, and I emerged on the other side feeling as if I had truly experienced something genuinely exceptional, found myself holding an unprecedented masterpiece. Although, arguably, the philosophical aspects could have been removed without causing undue damage to the text, they were far from irrelevant, and made for very interesting reading.

As such, I rated Tolstoy’s War and Peace 5 out of 5 stars, and would absolutely recommend it to anybody with a love and an interest in exceptional literature. It would, arguably, be preferred reading for anyone that enjoys classics, but whether it is read for the philosophy, the musings on war, the exceedingly vibrant – not to mention realistic – characters or for the extraordinary manner in which Tolstoy weaves a narrative, Tolstoy’s War and Peace will be enjoyed. I read a review claiming that reading War and Peace was to live War and Peace – perhaps in reference to the commitment required by the colossal word count – and I’m not entirely true whether this is the case, but it is certainly true that reading War and Peace was a fundamentally exceptional experience.

Book Review: Under Orders – Dick Francis

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Dick Francis’ Under Orders is a gripping and fast-paced novel from a veteran author. Following the often unplanned and occasionally even dubious (shock, horror) exploits of Sid Halley, jockey turned Detective, it is heavy on drama and action, and has a considerable sense of pace.

A respected figure in the horse racing community, Halley was obliged to retire when he sustained very severe injuries. He now makes a living as an investigator of sorts, with a marked preference for marching to his own beat and taking the work wherever he can get it (bank holidays not included). In Under Orders, Halley, somewhat inexplicably finding himself at the distinctly uncomfortable epicentre of three seemingly disparate investigations – into online gambling, race fixing, and the tragic murder of a young jockey, respectively – attacks each with a mixture of gusto and belligerence in a high stakes race to find and apprehend the culprit. Whatever Halley uncovers will undoubtedly have severe ramifications for the horse racing community, and he acts accordingly.

That is to say, he doesn’t inject much (any) tact into his approach.

Halley soon discovers that the three seemingly unconnected events are not as disparate as they initially seemed to be. What’s more, there are a number of individuals with a clear interest in forcing Halley to abandon his efforts, and his investigations sidle into dangerous territory, putting the people he loves in danger. Desperate to find answers and protect those caught up in the crossfire, Halley bludgeons through every obstacle to connect the dots and solve the mystery in a tense and exciting no-holds-barred ending.

(Shocker.)

Under Orders is an adventure that just barrels along, packed to the rafters with intrigue. Any momentary relief to the tension afforded by the occasional intervention of a comedic or romantic interlude (yes, they do actually happen, I kid you not) ostensibly for character development, provide a startling contrast to the sense of danger and jeopardy that so utterly characterises the rest of the novel.

Under Orders is well structured and confidently crafted, and is in possession of a great many enjoyable aspects. I was most impressed by the consistently exhaustive amount of detail, the setting (the horse racing scene, jockeys here, there and everywhere) and Francis’ undeniable talent for storytelling. If the devil is in the details, then he is eagerly dancing to Francis’ tune, because Under Orders practically brims with solid, factual information. This arguably lends the novel an impressive sense of dependable believability, and this firm injection of cold, hard realism ensures that the setting, so well and vibrantly described, practically leaps from the page, enabling a fully immersive read. Francis writes about topics he knows, and his mastery of those topics is palpable.

Additionally, no prior knowledge of the ins and outs of horse riding is necessary, as Francis explains everything well enough that there is little opportunity to be left by the wayside, floundering uncertainly, lost in a maze of meaningless terms and the occasional thoroughly bewildering acronym.

(I’ve had enough of bewildering acronyms.)

However, Under Orders is a classic Dick Francis novel, by which I mean that, having read one, I am able to more or less perfectly predict the structure and ending of all the others. The protagonist is of standard stereotypical stock (alliteration intended), being brave, stubborn, and recklessly dedicated to finding and revealing the truth, there are clearly defined heroes and villains, the former of which succeed in their endeavours, and the latter of which are punished in accordance with their heinous crimes (feel free to join in if you know the words), and the characters on the side of the angels run into a whole world of trouble and a not insignificant number of generally unhelpful people, but nonetheless eventually emerge victorious.

Additionally, there is little evidence of moral complexity, either in the behaviour of the characters, or in the novel as a whole. There are a few vaguely acknowledged grey areas, but they’re not explored or developed, which felt a little like a missed opportunity. The result may be light-hearted enough to match the sense of pace and tension, but I felt as if the narrative suffered, lacking complexity, maturity and depth. Connecting with the characters is difficult without some insight into what they might be thinking and feeling, even with some suggestion of their most prevalent motives, and as such I had little to no emotional investment in their behaviour and situations.

The protagonists in Dick Francis’ novels are heroes, replete with tragic backstories and a list of glowing accomplishments. While they may occasionally suffer from a number of decidedly less admirable personality traits, those uncomfortable factors are typically subsumed by an overwhelming horde of the opposite. Every so often, Halley does or considers something that may be considered not to be undoubtedly pure and admirable, but the moral consequences are bypassed by the simple expedient of categorising anything and everything under the idea of some sort of greater good or higher truth. There is little in the way of character development, and the romantic additions felt utterly extraneous, and also a little ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the plot is equally predictable, leaving little uncertainty as to what the result might be. While Francis’ aforementioned talent for storytelling makes it an interesting read quite irrespective of the content, I felt that it was somewhat lacking, vaguely akin to what I imagine would be the result of a fairly lacklustre attempt to write by numbers. All the necessary aspects are there, and it is undoubtedly cohesive, but it needed a little something more to impress me.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading Under Orders, but I was generally underwhelmed. It was in many respects too easy and too predictable a read, although the text and in particular the setting were detailed and vivid enough that it was thoroughly immersive. Sadly, I failed to connect on any level with the allegedly sympathetic character of Sid Halley, and I thought that more effort could have been expended to erase the damning predictability and inject some uncertainty into the conclusion. Therefore, despite enjoying many other Dick Francis novels, I rated it 2 out of 5 stars, and would not consider reading it again.

Book Review: The Vagrant – Peter Newman

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Every single review I have read on The Vagrant – and I’ve read a fair few, in the build-up and then the aftermath to my frenzied consumption of the novel – mentions the fact that one of the main characters is a goat. They usually talk at length about this topic, and often in profoundly flowery, descriptive terms. I have to admit, it’s getting a trifle repetitive. Thus, in a rather transparent and totally characteristic attempt to be Different™, I wrote an extremely long review without mentioning the goat once.

I then felt a little guilty, and subsequently revised my tactics.

If someone had told me before I read The Vagrant that I would, on finishing the novel, find myself to be A) unreasonably attached to a goat with an attitude problem and B) quite overcome to discover the sequel to The Vagrant was imminent, I would most likely have laughed, long and hard, coyote-style.

There are no half measures in literature appreciation, but I am an experienced traveller used to these waters.

Goats and children are all very well in theory, but I have found, in my previous reading experiences (she says loftily) that I rarely enjoy it when either children or animals occupy pole position. It reminds me rather too strongly of the books I used to like, and so I would generally prefer them to be kept neatly and appropriately to the well-maintained sidelines, if they are to be included at all.

In The Vagrant, however, they get knee-deep in the action and love every second of it.

But once I had finished The Vagrant, my stance on this matter had changed completely. His characterisation, complex, unassailable, entirely realistic and certainly not without humour, had held me spellbound. It’s engaging, intuitive, and genuinely enjoyable, and Newman does a remarkable job of bringing his world and characters to life.

I quite honestly adored every single line.

Peter Newman’s The Vagrant plays host to an impressive style. Deliberately sparse in some areas – the reader is not, for example, provided with the opportunity to delve into the private thoughts of any of the characters – it is also richly descriptive in others, and rests on a foundation of incredibly strong and furiously detailed world building. Undoubtedly unique in plot, structure and characterisation, The Vagrant therefore has much to commend it, not least of which is Newman’s writing style.

(Pause for breath.)

Granted, the plot is breathtakingly simple. The character of the vagrant is a man who has lost the ability to speak, irrevocably and permanently damaged by what he has endured. Nonetheless, he is a beacon of goodness and strength, though importantly not invulnerability, and has but one purpose: to reach a place named the Shining City, where he might find the one weapon that might turn the tide of the war. He is not without uncertainty, or questions, but he is also steadfast. With him he takes a baby, a pure symbol of innocence in a war-torn world, a goat, and, later, a man named Harm, who is drawn to his presence and never gets around to leaving again.

For all the vagrant’s goodness and gentle humour, the world they live in is far from kind, and his ability to improve it limited at best. Their enemies are far-ranging and powerful, the danger near constant, and his ability to trust even the power of his sword arm is often called into question. There are no easy questions, and certainly no simple answers. As simple as this seems, however, it is crisscrossed with various strands, given a particularly realistic complexity.

They’re a motley, ragtag group, and as such a combination quite common to fantasy novels. It is entirely expected for the hero to be in possession of several locked closets packed with skeletons, and a tragic past is practically required. A diverse team of non-heroes? Well, I’ve certainly heard that before. Off to save the world? Well, of course they are. But Newman’s careful, precise execution of those details is anything but predictable, and never stoops to what is just ‘expected.’ He is the master storyteller, and The Vagrant defies all expectations.

As such, while it may seem to meet the criteria for bog-standard fantasy fare, the exquisite detail with which it has been structured and actualised underlines the fact that it is of a quality that the genre as a whole is often claimed to lack.

The Vagrant is sci-fi/fantasy that is arguably at its best. It redefines conventions, refuses to be shoehorned, constantly poses difficult questions, and most of all brings to life a vision that soars far beyond the mundane without losing sight of what is entirely human. The Vagrant is extraordinarily personal, seated firmly in the human experience, and the detail with which the world is depicted provides stunning context and a rich understanding of the chosen setting.

Unable to gain any firm understanding of what was inside the character’s minds, I initially found it difficult to connect with them. As the novel developed and grew, however, I realised that I didn’t need it. Their personalities were clear, their decisions understandable for a variety of reasons, and, ultimately, the novel isn’t so much sparse as it is concentrated, to the exclusion of the unimportant, extraneous detail. The characters remain in the most significant position, undisturbed by entertaining but mostly unnecessary tangents into air versus land speeds, or yet another predictable variation on ye olde laser gun.

Newman’s characterisation is undoubtedly thorough enough to answer most questions, even without the opportunity to delve further, and his development of their story arcs is flawless. We see each character grow and change, responding and reacting to both internal and external pressures, and we witness improvement and disintegration on all sides. There are heroes and villains, but it is reassuringly not the case that one suffers while the other flourishes.

Lastly, The Vagrant makes explicit reference to wider themes such as morality and diversity, and plays host to a consistent and varied exploration of what humanity can possibly mean when the best practice for surviving the particularly harsh, war-torn world is to be profoundly self-interested.

The Vagrant will undoubtedly appeal to fans of sci-fi/fantasy novels, for it is an especially gifted example, but it shouldn’t be left there. Its good qualities are applicable across the board, and to identify it solely as a ‘good fantasy novel’ would be hopelessly reductive. I didn’t rate it highly out of sentiment, but because I believe it is genuinely fantastic, a compelling, exciting and thought provoking read.

In far less wordy terms: I read it, I loved it, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next part.

~

In the blogger’s spare time, she is:

Reading: One False Move by Harlan Coben

Watching: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Listening to: Cheap Thrills by Sia

 

Book Review: The Dark Defiles – Richard K. Morgan

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The Dark Defiles is the third and final book in Richard K Morgan’s ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ series, and it is an incredibly detailed, startlingly evocative, and wonderfully atmospheric fantasy novel gifted with an intriguing plot, extremely vibrant, well-written characters, and a premise fit for a King.

(Or a Queen.)

The Dark Defiles shrugs away every single trope that might be overly-optimistically applied to it, and utterly defied my expectations. It is unapologetically dark, inducing an admirable sense not only of intrigue, and despair at what might befall our plucky heroes, should the bad guys prevail, but also of sincere and worrying jeopardy, and the very real presence of the kind of consequences that the characters would surely struggle to come back from, if they even managed it at all.

(In short: this novel deserves a round of applause, and I’m leading the wave.)

The premise is simple. Powerful forces are gathering, poised to attack, and our ragtag band of heroes, anti-heroes, and those that loiter somewhere in the middle of the two groups move to defend against them, making a feverish, last-ditch attempt to save the world they know and understand, if not love. This is by all accounts standard fantasy novel fare, but Morgan’s execution is flawless, ultimately producing a profoundly original take on a familiar structure.

Ringil, the protagonist of the series, returns in The Dark Defiles, to grow, develop, and, of course, suffer, as the lengthy narrative draws neatly to a close. His path might be determined by the heavy weight of prophecy, but he refuses to yield, stubbornly clawing out a fate for himself. His story is then certainly not a happy one, in perfect keeping with the aforementioned delightfully dark atmosphere, but although he subsequently fits neatly into the ‘bloody tragic backstory’ trope that has become a staple of fantasy novels – not to name names, but I’m glancing in your direction, Robin Hobb – he is not defined by what he has suffered, or what he has yet to suffer, but by what he has achieved, instead, and how he has grown and changed as a result of it. Despite the constant sense of impending doom (and gloom), Ringil is written with arguably a palpable sense of power and potential, and, at least initially, of a destiny as yet unwritten.

Ringil is extremely well characterised (this is not flattery, I promise, but the truth as I see it), as is every other character. The Dark Defiles has interesting character arcs in abundance, in a kind of equal measures arrangement seemingly intended to prevent anyone and everyone from stumbling across even the slightest hint of a remotely cheerful ending. It’s decidedly satisfying, in the sense that it adheres not only to the stipulated dark and vicious atmosphere and general style, but also to some standard of realism, as Morgan’s depicted universe doesn’t seem the kind to subscribe to happy endings and friendly woodland characters, and as such including them wouldn’t mesh.

(Sorry, Disney.)

Additionally, Morgan touches upon many disparate (and interesting) themes throughout the course of his series, from concepts such as honour and loyalty, to considerations of friendship and family, and, especially in The Dark Defiles, discrimination and prejudice. He ticks many, many lovely boxes when it comes to representation, as several of his main characters, both male and female, admit to preferences that are not widely shared in their respective societies, and do openly suffer for their choices – this is no enlightened world of acceptance – but the bulk of their character development comes from other reasons and other choices, and as such they are neither defined nor eclipsed by their sexualities.

To take a slightly different perspective, although The Dark Defiles is the startling conclusion to an established series, it can easily be read and enjoyed by anyone unfamiliar with the context provided by the other two novels. Naturally, reading the first two will inform one’s reading of the third, and provide the enterprising consumer with a wealth of background knowledge that the newcomer will lack, but it can be enjoyed equally well in isolation.

(Which was, incidentally, how I enjoyed it, as I was late to the party yet again.)

In keeping with my general attempt at flattery, this is, again, a clear indicator of Morgan’s genius. His efforts at world building are exceptional, and his novels immerse the reader in entirety into his depicted setting. From small-town prejudices to farming practices, no stone is left unturned, no detail left to fall helplessly by the wayside, and the result is an incredibly detailed setting that is vivid enough that it practically springs off the page. Morgan’s mastery of intense imagery is particularly noticeable here, presenting a picture into which his equally vivid characters fit with consummate ease.

The plot is admirable for similar reasons, with arguably breathtaking scope, bringing together the numerous disparate threads from across the series into an understandable, cohesive whole. No character arc is left incomplete, no storyline unfinished and abandoned, and the conclusion is undoubtedly climatic, brimming with drama.

Morgan keeps the reader guessing until the very last page, and he doesn’t pull his punches.

Finally, then, I think it is at least approaching safe to say that I enjoyed The Dark Defiles. I expected to, of course, because not only am I extremely clever, it also sits squarely into one of my favourite genres, and as such is in possession of many of the attributes that I find to be particularly enjoyable in the books I read. On the other hand, however, I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did, as despite a fundamentally intriguing premise and a decidedly persuasive blurb, I was concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my soaring expectations.

Needless to say, The Dark Defiles didn’t just live up to them, it exceeded them in entirety, blasting straight past (to infinity and beyond). I could not fail to give it five stars, and would not hesitate in picking up anything by Morgan in the future. This is an exceptional novel from a profoundly accomplished author whose contributions to the genre, and to fiction in general, just keep giving.