Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mirror Mirror - Gregory Maguire

Everywhere you look in London these days there are posters for Wicked, the new musical based on Maguire's novel of the same name, so he must be doing all right for himself. I read that book a few years ago, along with his Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and enjoyed both - the retelling of fairy tales is a theme I generally like very much. Mirror Mirror is, not surprisingly, his take on the Snow White story, setting it in rural Umbria at the time of the Borgias. One of the darker traditional fairy tales, this has been successfully adapted many times before, notably in Tanith Lee's Red as Blood or the 1997 film Snow White: A Tale of Terror - Maguire had a lot to live up to, and unfortunately this book falls very flat in comparison.

One of the trickiest aspects of translating Snow White into the real world is finding a place for the dwarfs. Unlike Cinderella's pumpkin, they're an essential part of the story, and a hard one to replace in a non-fairytale context. Maguire has got round this by introducing a slight air of magical realism into his historical-fiction setting. There are hints of dragons and unicorns alongside the Papal politics and the deadly rivalry between the Florentine and Roman families, which sets the scene for the dwarfs to come in as animate rocks trying to be human. I'm not a particular fan of magical realism anyway, and I found this quite an uncomfortable mix - the mystical elements ended up looking rather contrived, and jarred unpleasantly with the real-world details.

The writing style doesn't help - it's the Historical Fiction Standard of stilted and formal faux-archaic-speak, which probably qualifies this as Literature but doesn't make the story any more engaging. There's the odd whimsical moment, particularly the exchanges between the priest and the old pagan cook, that add a welcome touch of Jack Vance to the proceedings, but mostly it's just tiresome. Bianca, the Snow White of the piece, is too pure and innocent to be even slightly interesting; Lucrezia Borgia (as Wicked Stepmother) has more depth but is still more of a cartoon villainess. Few of the characters' motivations are particularly convincing.

It's a very pretty book, printed in interesting fonts with nice woodcut illustrations throughout, but it was just so boring. The Snow White story has been done so much better by so many people; I wouldn't bother with this at all.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Before They Are Hanged - Joe Abercrombie

No, I couldn't wait; this beat off the competition and jumped to the top of the stack. And a fine book it is too; a very worthy sequel to The Blade Itself with some much more assured writing and continued character development, it was a hard one to put down.

The plot divides up into three strands, followed by our various viewpoint characters. The army is off to fight Bethod in the North, Glokta has been sent south to oversee a siege, and the wizard Bayaz has taken his companions off on a quest somewhere else. By itself, this sounds extremely cheesy, but I found myself much more interested in how the characters interacted than what they were actually doing. That made a world of difference - the outcome of the quest seemed much less important than how the travellers had developed en route.

As ever, Glokta stole the show, with the odd bit of compassion seeping into his venemously cynical demeanour. His chapters involved the most political intrigue, with help, hindrance and betrayal coming from unexpected quarters. Logan Ninefingers remains as personable as ever, and even Jezal gets a bit nicer, but the real surprise here is the development of West - previously a rather dull side character, he gets decently fleshed out as the hard-pressed commander of the Angland forces, having to deal with feuding generals, a pampered prince and the bitter northern war. With all the characters, I ended up wishing each of their chapters was longer.

The quality of the writing is noticeably improved from Book 1; the story has great pace and the characters' actions seem much more internally consistent. Some heavy hints have been dropped about where the story is going, but I wouldn't put it past Abercrombie to pull the rug out at the last minute, especially if the ending of this book is anything to go by. Now I just have to wait until the final volume is published... (checks watch, taps fingers...)


Friday, April 13, 2007

The Steep Approach to Garbadale - Iain Banks

Alban McGill, wayward scion of the wealthy Wopuld family, is heading back to the old house at Garbadale for a reunion. The family's fortune comes from the board game Empire!, invented by great-grandfather in the Victorian era, now a massive franchise with thriving spinoffs and computer-game formats and in danger of a corporate takeover from big American company. A chance comment by dotty old aunt sets him trying to unravel the mystery of his mother's suicide, so he delves into the family's murky history while trying to sort out his feelings for childhood sweetheart Cousin Sophie...

Iain Banks is nominally one of my favourite authors, but it's been a good few years since he's written anything I'd consider great. This one has been billed as a return to the glory days of The Crow Road, but in fact it feels like a Greatest Hits montage of lots of his other books. We have the sprawling eccentric family of The Crow Road and Whit, international corporate hijinks from The Business, a board game that could have come from The Player of Games, a girl who likes solitary mountain climbing like the one in Consider Phlebas, a character whose badly-spelt viewpoint echoes Bascule from Feersum Endjinn, an arrogant posh bird whose type features in several other books... and a "surprise" ending that any regular Banks reader will be able to spot a mile off. I'm hoping that this was all deliberate and not a sign that he's run out of ideas, but even so, it was quite annoying.

The Banks Medley is not the only strange stylistic choice, either. All the crappy devices used to make Crack of Death look amateur are at work here - shifting viewpoints, tenses jumping back and forth, switches between first and third person... we know Banks is too good a writer to be doing this accidentally, but the fact that it's intentional doesn't make it any easier to read. There's clumsy shoehorning-in of lazy political points, too; some characters have a conversation about global warming for no particular reason, and the stereotypical American businessmen are like little puppets who only exist to provoke Alban's anti-Bush rants.

Having said this, it's not all bad; in fact, to start off with I was very impressed. The initial sense that Something is Wrong is well built-up, and there are some gorgeously written passages too, mostly relating to Alban's mother's suicide. It's only when you get halfway in that it starts to grate - the story's not as interesting as it promises to be, the political point-scoring is cheap and obvious, and for all its classic Banks references, this is no Complicity. It's barely even a Walking On Glass - more like a tired imitation of an Iain Banks book than the real thing.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way - Nick Cohen

Walking along Cornmarket in the early Nineties, I was accosted by a strange young man not much older than myself who demanded "With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, do you think the old values of Left and Right have become obsolete?" He didn't even have a clipboard or anything. I can't remember my answer, though it was probably just "Er..." followed by a dash into Our Price, but fifteen years later, that's actually a very good question. The three main political parties are squabbling over the middle-ground, leaving the Left's old territories to single-issue pressure groups of varying credibility; the only thing uniting them is a hatred of Bush and American imperialism which, while perfectly understandable, is hardly a sound basis for a policy. One pernicious result of this is the disturbing number of left-wing voices raised in support of anyone who shares this hatred, regardless of whatever other views they espouse; the insanity of former socialists making excuses for totalitarian regimes has not been lost on left-wing journalist Nick Cohen, who has penned this vituperative analysis of the Left's decline. Where did we go wrong?

Of all people, the liberal intelligentsia seems best able by temperament and training to lead the search for the middle way. No phrase is dearer to our hearts than "there is good and bad on both sides". Our favourite colour is grey (or shades thereof). When presented with a choice between unacceptable alternatives - Hitler or carnage, Bush or Osama bin Laden, a capricious war or the perpetuation in power of Saddam Hussein - why shouldn't we be allowed to reject both without bullies accusing us of being Islamist or Baathist dupes?

I feel like a class traitor when I say it but the first lesson from the "heroic" age of the Left in the Thirties is that it never works like that in a conflict in which your own society is involved. You can be a critical friend of one side or another, a very critical friend as often as not, but you have to choose which side you are on, and those who don't usually end up as the biggest villains of all.

Cohen takes us back over the history of the left-liberal movement throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, relating it all back to the current conflict in Iraq. The style is very readable - almost chatty, if not for the simmering anger - and there are plenty of interesting nuggets about clueless champagne socialists and would-be demagogues cuddling up to the far right. He spares no scorn for the pretentious postmodernism that has muddied the waters of what it actually means to be left-liberal, and tries to get down into the roots of what we stand for. Surely it's the job of the Left to oppose oppression and promote democracy for everyone, not just (or even chiefly) the ones being oppressed by our traditional enemy of Corporate America?

This was, in many ways, a humbling read. I'd always thought I was fairly politically clued-up, and it was quite shaming to see how much media spin I'd swallowed. It's still very hard to believe anything positive about Bush or Blair, but Cohen has rightly pointed out that dodgy dossiers and the WMD fiasco are tiny concerns compared with the removal of a mass-murdering dictator, and that just because Sunni "insurgents" are fighting against Bush's America, that doesn't make them the good guys. After all, it's our left-wing values of democracy and tolerance that the Islamists are trying to destroy, and it's a little embarrassing to see the Right having to fight our battles for us.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this book has been better received on the Right than on the Left, though this in itself shows how skewed our values have become; Cohen says little that isn't based on good, solid socialism. I'm not entirely convinced by everything in here, and occasionally his arguments are a little unclear, but as an eye-opener to the real state of left-wing politics, this is a good place to start. A liberal Left prepared to excuse sexism, anti-semitism and other excesses of the far right is in need of a serious shake-up, and this book deserves to be widely read.


Goodkind's Democracy In Action

"Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action" - Terry Goodkind, in a recent online Q&A
Before I begin this parody I want to add the following disclaimer: I am not a very politically motivated person and as such I don't know everything about the subject matter, so if I get some details wrong, upset someone with my portrayal of anything please understand that I am not doing so intentionally. I don't want to divert this thread into a heated political discussion. My only purpose is to create something which others will hopefully find funny and take the chronic piss out of that asshat Tairy Goodkind. Thank you.

In an instant, suddenly the lights went out. Kahlan was in the dark. There was no light for Kahlan to see anything around her. Her surroundings were a complete mystery to her. A mystery she just had to solve. Immediately.
She had been on her way back to the palace where Richard was waiting for her after checking on Zedd who was hiding his identity from Richard so that he would be able to identify some magic whatsit danger thing which threatened to, erm, well the reason is convoluted and stupid, makes little logical sense so I won't dwell any further on this irrelevant detail. The point of the human theme I am getting at is Kahlan has been magically transported to someplace dark that she does not know.

A voice spoke to her now. Masculine. Loud. Echoy.
'Kahlan, I am an evil and powerful spirit who has summoned you here through space and time to test a theory of mine. I have brought others to this place too. A place shaped to be familiar to you.'
The room lightened around her. A circular stone room with a deep pit dug in the ground before her. Kahlan screamed but could not move away. This was the pit where she had been almost raped (chapter 59, Stone of Tears - rather than any of the other dozen or so occasions).
'You should know that your magic will not work here.' It was true, Kahlan could feel the emptiness inside her were she would normally be able to feel the churning anger of her magic, her powerful Mother Confessor magic which allowed her to take command of anybody who she touched and claimed as her own. She felt so alone and naked without her magic.

'Right then, throw her in.' Said the voice. Unseen hands lifted her body up and carried her towards the pit.
'You don't have to do this. Please, please? Nooooooooooooooooooo!' She sailed out over a vacuum which pulled her down. The sinking feeling of "oh no, not again" accompanied her descent into the hole. Just like the hole which clenched her stomach into a knot of rigid terror right at that moment. Just like the emptiness of the hole of her missing magic.

Hands caught her. Mens hands. Grasping hands. Groping hands.
Keeping a reign on her terror, she remembered how she got out of this the last time it happened.
'Wait! You are doing it wrong. If you back off, do me one at a time. I will do anything you want. Please I know you are going to rape me and there is nothing I can do to stop you, but I want to be able to enjoy this too. I've always wanted to have really dirty sex at the bottom of a pit with evil criminals because I am really a wanton, dirty whore. So lets do this my way, what do you say?'

'An interesting proposal, however new proposals must be documented in triplicate and submitted for approval by the majority of Gang Rapers in said gang before any new course of action can be actioned by the Rapists in question.'
'What?' Said a stunned Kahlan. The hands let her go and the group of men backed off.
'George you are overcomplicating things, always worried about the paperwork. Are you obfuscating the proceedings of this gang rape with this political red tape?'
'I agree with Mr Adams,' mumbled a tall gentleman with an American accent. Kahlan thought he might be a good mark for the one to use against the others when her powers returned.
'We do not require a document declaring our independent intent to impale this wench upon the length of our erect manhoods, against the wishes of said whore. A simple vote carried by the majority should be enough to convince us of the righteousness of our purposes.' Said a bearded man with an English accent.
'Absolutely. A binding agreement can be ratified in short order. If the people want to gang rape, they will gang rape.'

Kahlan felt this was not going according to plan.
'Who are you?'
'I am George Washington, my dear whore and I have been plucked from history and brought here by some strange force to test some theory. We have to rape you in order to be returned to where we belong.'
'I am John Adams and this is my compatriot Benjamin Franklin and the tall fellow there is Thomas Jefferson. However I am not certain who these gentleman are.'
'I am Simon De Montfort,' said the man with the English accent.
'You called the first directly-elected democratic government since ancient Greece in 1265.' Said Benjamin Franklin. 'Good on ya. How strange that there are no men from other time periods here.'

'Well actually there are. I am Lucius Junnis Brutus, first elected Consul of Rome.'
'Hang on, weren't you elected to the position after removing the previous ruling family because of an obnoxious shit who raped one of your kinswomen? Is it in any way appropriate for you to become a rapist yourself now?'
'Yeah well, fuck it you know.'
'I think we can all agree that we must rape this wanton wench,' Said a short frenchman, 'The more important question is who should go first?'
'Aren't you Napoleon Bonaparte? What are you doing here?'
'I have embraced Liberalism in the later years of my life and as a Liberal I feel it is only right that the less represented are given a fair chance. Ergo, short people have as much right to go first as the taller, stronger men do.'

An argument broke out amongst the men as they tried to decide a fair and democratic process of choosing who would be the first one to rape Kahlan. Loud sentances overrode the others as one voice stood out from the others at random occasions in the fracas.
'The role of primary rapist must be voted for in a fair and impartial manner!"
'I insist we draw up a constitutional contract outlying our goals!'
'Yes the details are important!'
'Damnation to the paperwork. This is not the Declaration of Gang Rape Dependence!'
'We never intended that as a cornerstone of democratic thinking, it was supposed to be a big fuck you to the King of England and you know it!'
'I don't really care anymore so long as we get to bone this girl into submission!"

Finally one man pushed his way through from the back of the group and declared loudly, silencing the others (the silence rang like a bell of course).
'I am Aristotle and I invented democracy, therefore I go first!'
'Not that we are not grateful to you old boy but supreme executive primary gang rape power can only be derived by a mandate from the masses. That means us and your skinny ass ain't getting my vote!' The heated debate raged once more.
'Let me do it. I'm almost ready to burst over her face here anyway.' Said Benjamin Franklin.
'You always were good at the money shot!' Said Jefferson.
'But we need to institute a voting procedure and determine our candidates before we can even talk about who goes first and the process of ejaculation will require weeks of discussion leading up to the projected moment of orgasm.'
The men were unable to agree on anything it seemed.

Kahlan stared at the crazy democratic men for a moment and then thought to herself,
'Fuckery! If I don't do something quick I won't get any action here.'
So then she said to the assembled group,
'You know if you were Objectivists, one of you would have already beaten the others to a bloody pulp and be raping me by now.'
The men all stopped talking and stared at her for a moment.
Then they all burst out laughing. Kahlan's face burned red in embarrassment.
'Why are you laughing?'

'Because your objectivist philosophy is so fundamentally flawed it only serves to highlight the falseness of your actions. You claim that the only irreducible bedrock of truth is what you yourself want and to do anything else is morally wrong and chooses death. However we are talking about the complex ideologies of governance and the social impact this has on the individual. While you may not like the process of democracy, and hell we can't even agree on what that should be ourselves, to choose any system of governance which does away with central control or majority rule is doomed to failure because of one simple fact: people are stupid.

Any philosophy of Individualism which places the responsibility of governance solely in the hands of an individual is open to a vast array of problems because, simply put, most people are incapable of handling the moral implications of this. You can try to educate everyone, try to imprint a moral code which promotes a utopian world where everyone does the right thing all the time - but it just will not happen because while it is achievable for some it is not achievable for all.

We do not live in a perfect world where magic can get you out of every conceivable problem that arises like it does in yours and to follow your philosophy would only lead to a dictatorship rule where one man what says is right and without having to give reason or justification for his actions. Claiming that Richard is the personification of truth and reason is a straw crutch which simply does not exist in the real world because the thoughts and motivations within ones head cannot be seen by others but only interpreted by ones actions.

As such the only fair and morally right action is to allow a majority to carry the point with considerations given to the welfare of the minority so that every individual has an equal say and an equal right insofar as is humanly possible. No, this does not always work as well as it should and its true course is disrupted by bureaucratic procedure, political correctness, corrupt and greedy officials - but these are separate issues from whether democracy is a failure as a system of government. It may not be perfect, but its what we have and is better than any other alternative.

Can you not understand what I am saying to you?' George Washington finally finished his speech.

'How do you know so much about my world all of a sudden?' Said Kahlan.
'Look the details are not important.' Said Franklin.
'But you said the details were important a minute ago.' Replied Kahlan.
'I thought a contradiction could not exist. Your philosophy not mine.' Said John Adams.
'I thought that was what it should be, but I'm not so sure anymore for some reason.' Said Kahlan puzzled.
'Erm, I'm not sure what is going on anymore. My mind is swirling with anarchistic thoughts!' Said Simon De Montfort.
'I think I might say shit in a moment!' Said Aristotle.
'Whats happening?' Said Lucius Junnis Brutus.

'I am subverting the course of democracy and instead promoting an agenda of anarchism! Muhahah!' Said a man suddenly appearing.
'Johnny Rotten?' Said Napoleon.
'Thats right fuckers! Anarchy for Dhara! Its coming some day and we don't care!'

At this point the quantum singularity bubble of reality occupying this space collapses under the mass of its own stupidity and compacts down to the size of a small peanut before imploding with a barely audible pop.

- theMountainGoat

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Darkness That Comes Before - R Scott Bakker

This seems to be the standard fantasy template at the moment - an inhuman menace rising in the North, the reawakening of some ancient power, political factions too busy infighting to heed warnings of the impending Apocalypse - everyone's trying to be George R R Martin. Reading this so soon after The Blade Itself caused some serious confusion with my mental geography too, despite the lovely Tolkien-esque map that appears at the front here. Still, this series distinguishes itself with a very dark and serious take on the subject, and is a long way from being by-numbers fantasy froth, for all that the landscape looks familiar.

With a background in philosophy and social science, Bakker has focused on the ideologies and conflicts of the major political players; the first half of the book follows some rather tortuous intrigue in the build-up to the forthcoming Holy War. Unfortunately this takes a bit of getting through; the politics is convoluted, and is full of characters alluding to secret plots and jumping to conclusions from evidence not shared with the reader (you know the sort of thing, "Could he be...? No, impossible! Unless... ah, what devilish cunning!" etc). It's also not backed up with any decent characters - none of the players are sympathetic, and even the amusingly self-regarding Emperor seems a bit flat. Just over halfway through, though, Kellhus comes back and things improve.

The character of Kellhus is one of the main reasons I'd recommend reading this. He is introduced in the prologue as scion of the old ruling family, hidden away for centuries since the last apocalypse was averted, now returning to possibly claim his birthright. Typical Return of Lost Heir stuff, but with a twist - this is no noble prince, but a ruthless utilitarian who coldly uses and discards people to further his own ends. Is he the villain, or is the threat of the No-God and the Second Apocalypse enough to justify his actions? While certainly not a likeable character, he's a very intriguing one, and his presence is enough to liven up the story while dragging it into the moral grey area that we all love.

One area where Bakker does fall down is his portrayal of female characters. OK, he's drawn a repressive patriarchal society with fewer interesting roles for women, but they do get a particularly raw deal from his pen. We only get three of them - one shrill and scheming dowager-Empress, one wet and clingy concubine, and one tough but brittle prostitute; they are all quite boring and shallow, and even less likeable than the men. It's possible that the other characters' emotional failings are made so prominent to emphasise their difference from the emotionless Kellhus, but when all we see is the negative side it gets rather wearing. Even so, but the story's interesting enough to make me want to read on; when the stack's gone down a bit I'll probably be getting the rest of the trilogy, however unpleasant the characters may be.


Monday, April 02, 2007

The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie

This is one of the impressive batch of debut novels that came out last year; I would have read it sooner, but my first copy turned out to have a binding error and half the pages were missing (dammit!). This now rectified, it turns out to be an interesting mix of epic and urban fantasy, sidling cautiously round the edges of clichés only to slap "kick me" signs on their backs and run away. It's clearly a first novel - the writing is slightly clumsy in places and the worldbuilding is standard and a bit sloppy - but the characters are fantastic, and merit a read regardless of where the plot ends up.

In the North, one barbarian chieftain has declared himself king and subdued all the other tribes; only his ex-champion-turned-enemy Logan Ninefingers remains free. In the South, a Prophet has risen from among the desert slavers, and the new Empire is preparing to make war. And in between is Midderland and the city of Adua, nominally capital of the world but now riddled with corruption and indolence; fancy nobles swan about even as the government is undermined from within and their strongholds abroad begin to fall. Into this mix come some ancient wizards out of legend, bringing news that their old adversary is on the rise, and that this is the worst possible time for everyone to be squabbling...

The story is unveiled through the viewpoints of several of the players, whose characters take many of their aspects from cardboard-cut-out fantasy while just avoiding being cardboard-cut-outs themselves. Logan's blood-soaked reputation is rendered surprising by the man's intelligent and pleasant nature; arrogant young noble Jezal is a prize arsehole blind to his own faults, and generally lacking in hero-qualities; even the embarrassingly feisty heroine has a genuine drink problem and a darker history than you'd expect. Best of all is the crippled torturer Glokta - once the dashing hero of the last war, then broken in the enemy's dungeon, you can practically see the bitterness dripping off the page as he hobbles around trying to unravel the corruption in the city's heart. We don't even know yet if he's a hero or a villain, but I can't wait to find out.

The one drawback the characters have is their occasional tendency to let the plot lead them around by the nose; while their thoughts were consistent, there were more than a few out-of-character actions that serviced the story but didn't do the character-integrity any good. Still, that's a rookie error that I'm sure will be ironed out in future instalments. One other problem I noticed was the inadequacy of the geographic description - it wasn't until nearly the end of the book that I realised that Midderland was on an island. I can appreciate the decision not to include a map, but in this case the description didn't really make up for the lack.

The sequel, Before They Are Hanged has just come out in the UK, with a cover just as pretty as this one. While getting books of two different sizes will muck up the pleasing symmetry of my library, I'm not sure I can wait for the mass-market paperback to come out - in fact, I'm not sure I can even wait until my next payday (though I have less of a choice in that matter). This may not be quite as polished as some of the other debuts from last year, but it's still a great read, and I'm keen to see where the story is going. If it's as full of cliché-busting goodness as this one, I'll be glad of my impatience.