Looking Backward, Pt 1

[This is the first half of a post I began back in January. It’s taking me so long to write it, I decided I’d split it up and post the completed part now. This post originally aimed to just give a brief summary and opinion, but as it went on i started getting more detailed, resulting in mini-reviews (and, in the case of The Once and Future King, an ill-informed mini-essay). I was going to cross-post this on the ‘Articles’ page, but the code I’ve got set up for that seems to prevent anything in the category showing up on the front page.]

Jumping on the ‘what just happened’ bandwagon, I’m writing a post about 2005. I’m going to look at my reading for the past year – and rather than just yet another ‘best of’ list, I’m going to go over absolutely everything. I think it’s about time I tried to give a fuller opinion on the books I’ve read, so I’m going to go through every single one and say what I thought about it. Long, boring post ahead.

January-March

  • The Otherland series
  • Tad Williams’ big science fiction series, massive books, lots going on, and going on, and on, and on. I enjoyed the series, though it was pretty good, but the storyline does tend to meander from one event to another, and the final volume is not perhaps as exciting as you might expect from the three-book build up toward it. Still, worth a look if you’ve liked Tad’s other work.

  • Blood Follows
  • Erikson’s first Bauchelain and Broach novella, set in the Malazan universe. This short book (less than 100 pages) tells of the hiring of beleagered manservant Emancipor Reese on the island of Theft in Korelri. The novellas contain a lot more humour than the Malazan Book of the Fallen novels, but Blood Follows is not quite so heavy on the puns as the second novella in this series (expected to reach six stories in total). I also felt that the story suffered from the shortness of the work, with the climax having much less impact than his writing in the Malazan series has had on me in the past. Not brilliant, but good for a quick laugh.

April

  • Perdido Street Station
  • Mieville’s first novel in the Bas-lag universe, and my first experience of China Mieville’s writing. The story of New Crobuzon scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin; his khepri lover Lin, an insect-headed artist; and Yag, a disgraced and wingless Garuda who commisions Isaac to restore his flight. This is one of the most original novels I’ve ever read, packed full of interesting ideas and fantastic creations. Mieville possesses an impressive vocabulary, though he does tend to overuse it, and he does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of this amazing setting.

  • Spiral
  • The sequel to Ring by Koji Suzuki, which I read the year before, Spiral shows the inevitable spread of Yamamura Sadako’s power, by the end of the novel no longer limited to cursed videotapes. The few scary scenes were an improvement upon the unmoving work in the previous novel, but the attempts to give scientific explanation to the Ring phenomenon (the Ring Virus, a pschically altered smallpox which kills in exactly one week) didn’t quite hold up for me, and though it may be the translation which is at fault, like the previous book the writing just felt a little flat and uninteresting. I’m not sure if I will continue reading when the final volume, Loop, appears in this edition.

  • The Scar
  • China Mieville’s follow up to Perdido Street Station, this book take us out of the city of New Crobuzon and off across the waves. The major part of the novel takes place on Armada, a floating city built of stolen ships and lost vessels, haven to the smugglers and pirates that sail the oceans of Bas-lag. Armada is every bit as diverse as New Crobuzon, both above and below the water level. His story takes you to the farthest corners of the Swollen Ocean and further, off into unexplored waters in search of that great wounding of the earth, the Scar, where everything possible is true. Every bit as original as Perdido Street Station, The Scar lives up to the expectation set by that novel, with characters like the Brucolac and Uther Doul, species like Scabmettlers and the Anophelii, filling a detailed fantasy setting more interesting than most. If I were to compare the two, I’d still rate PSS higher, but it’s a close race.

May

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • An alternate history fantasy about two gentleman magicians in seventeenth century England. A magical realm that lies beneath our own, and whose history is intertwined with that of England. The Raven King, who once ruled the north of England from his city of Newcastle. Strange & Norrell has elements of a fairy tale, period drama, and historical account, but its entirety is an interesting, enjoyable, and original novel. Though I felt it started slowly, it never lost my interest, and once Jonathan Strange appears the story takes off, and almost never disappoints. There were a few moments toward the ending that didn’t sit right with me, but all in all this is pulled off pretty well, and definately worth a look if you haven’t read it yet.

  • The Healthy Dead
  • Another quick, funny read from Steven Erikson’s Bauchelain & Korbal Broach series of novellas. The sorcerors have arrived at the city of Quaint, a place ruled by a king obsessed with healthiness – of the body and of the spirit. On arrival, Bauchelain and his companion are hired to save the people from their king’s madness, which they set about to do in the way they know best: necromancy.
    Packed full of Erikson’s humour, it can sometimes seem like he’s laying it on a little thick, but the book is still enjoyable, and as well written as all of Erikson’s work. Worth reading if you’re a fan.

  • The Year of Our War
  • I didn’t really know anything about this book when I bought it other than that it was about an immortal who could fly. I think when I got it I was sort of expecting a pretty normal epic fantasy – what I got was something interesting and different. Comet Jant Shira, youngest member of the immortal Circle who rule the Fourlands under the Emperor San, is a former gang member and a drug addict, and when he overdoses he finds himself in a very weird alternate world no one but the addicts believes is real. His world is being overrun by giant insects that seemingly appear from nowhere, and Jant and his fellow immortals are the leaders in an ongoing war.
    The writing may not be as polished as some, but the real appeal in this book comes from Jant’s character and the way it is shown through his first-person narrative. The conflicts – both with the insects and between the immortals – were interesting, but frankly with other books I read around this time I’m beginning to tire of the whole giant insect theme.

  • The Etched City
  • Honestly, I think it would take a reread for me to judge this book fairly. I think I enjoyed it, but my memory of the impression it had on me seems a little confused. I remember a detached feeling to the prose, some odd and quite surreal events in the story, and a mildly disappointing resolution. I think there was some hint of the kind of fascination I get at the moment with some of the more brilliant yet confusing prose, but i hadn’t had enough exposure to this back then to fully appreciate it.

  • The Book of The New Sun
  • I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the Book of the New Sun as much as I’d say I was intrigued by it. This was my first experience of Wolfe, and his writing is certainly less visceral and more intellectual. Gene Wolfe’s books are easily the most dense I’ve read, and The Book of the New Sun probably requires years of study before one can really begin to understand what is going on behind Severian’s unreliable narration. This is probably why, on finishing Shadow of the Torturer I was doubting whether I would like this book. By the end of Claw of the Conciliator, however, I’d been drawn in completely to trying to understand what was behind the story Wolfe was presenting. Every word is important, and everything that happens makes you think. Wolfe’s mastery of this multi-layered narrative, part story part puzzle, left me in no doubt that he is one of the best writers out there.

June

  • The Call of Cthulu
  • A short readand a short comment; this is what I said at the time: “Some atmospheric scenes, but seemed to suffer from a lack of immediacy in the recounting.” The language may have been there, but it didn’t have the impact it could have had.

  • King Rat
  • Miéville’s third appearence; his first novel. Saul comes home late, goes to sleep, and the next morning the police show up at his door and arrest him for throwing his father out of the window of their flat. While in his cell at the police station, a man appears who introduces himself as King Rat, tells Saul he is his uncle, that Saul is half rat, and then busts him out. The story that follows involves King Rat, Saul, Saul’s friends, Anansi the spider god, and a fight against the evil Pied Piper.
    My first thought about this novel – no wait, my first thought about this novel was that it was almost as well-written and just as immediately engaging as his other works. My second thought was that this novel seemed like it would not be as accessible to a wide audience. King Rat focuses quite a bit on the Jungle music scene in London, and London culture in general, and while this may not have an effect on the readers enjoyment of the novel, it could put some people off early on.

  • Fevre Dream
  • My first George RR Martin read outside of A Song of Ice and Fire, this tale of vampires on the Mississippi may not have quite the same excitement as A Storm of Swords, but it is still an enjoyable read, and worth reading if you’re a fan of Martin’s work. Some of the darker scenes didn’t really seem to work for me – most of the novel had about the same tone, whether things were going on as normal or the undead were slaughtering innocent people. The final scenes also didn’t quite gel, but that’s just personal taste, I think.

  • The Once and Future King
  • TH White’s classic tale of Arthur Pendragon. A fairly light read, the first book, The Sword in the Stone is the story we all know so well. A couple of scenes stood out in this one – these are Wart’s time spent among both the Ants, and the Geese. They possess a different tone to the rest of the book – which is understandable, since both scenes were cut from White’s original version of The Book of Merlyn, and so originally intended to show animal society as contrasted with humanity as part of his argument of the inferiority of mankind – something not quite in kind with the lighter themes of the opening volume in this series.
    As an aside, I think I should mention that throughout these books, usually at the beginning or end of a volume, text is included of White explaining his disagreements with Malory (Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur being the basis for White’s story), and his intentions in changing one or another point in the story. These parts do little to add to the books themselves, but they gave an interesting enough picture to make me eventually purchase Le Mort D’Arthur for future reading.
    The second book, The Witch in the Wood, is the shortest, and focuses almost entirely on the childhood of Gawain and his brothers, the children of witch – and Arthur’s half-sister – Morgause, and basically setting the stage for Arthur’s Round Table and his seduction by Morgause. While some events of this book have effects later on, it still feels a little unnecessary in the context of the whole storyline.
    The Ill-Made Knight is probably the best book, being the story of Sir Lancelot, and his affair with Queen Guenever. This book is also the place where the tone begins to darken, losing all the humour in earlier volumes and beginning to bring into play the factors that eventually cause Arthur’s demise. The fourth volume brings it all round to its conclusion, with Arthur’s death at war against his best friend.
    The volume I read also included the fifth book in the series, The Book of Merlyn. This book begins identical to the final scene in The Candle in the Wind, but rather than going to the ending presented before, with death promised, Merlyn comes to visit Arthur and takes him to meet with the animals he met in the first book. What follows is a lengthy discourse on the brutality of mankind and the horror of war. The book also includes the original, longer versions of the ant and goose scenes mentioned above. White’s opinion of men who war is very clear in this book, and the message he tries to press on the reader doesn’t really make for an enjoyable read. White apparently decided to write this fifth volume upon realising that one of the major themes of Malory was to find and “antidote to war”, and his attempt to address that issue dominates the book in all aspects. Personally, I believe the series would have ended better without The Book of Merlyn.

End of Part 1. Coming eventually: July-December.

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4 thoughts on “Looking Backward, Pt 1

  1. Very interesting reviews, Murrin. Perhaps I should start writing short reviews of the books I read at my blog. I read a lot, and writing short reviews like these might help keep books fresher in my mind. :-)

    duchy

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