Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts.

There are dangers and adventures for Bod in the graveyard. But it is in the land of the living that the real danger lurks for it is there that the man Jack lives and he has already killed Bod’s family.

Almost every blogger I know has read and loved a book by Neil Gaiman. Before I began reading blogs and blogging myself, I had only heard of the name Neil Gaiman as Terry Pratchett’s co-author on Good Omens, which I haven’t read. So when I found The Graveyard Book and Neverwhere at a stall on Portobello Road Market, I couldn’t leave them there, I had to buy them! And I’m glad that the blogosphere pointed out another of my #bookfails, because The Graveyard Book is a stunning little book. I adored Nobody Owens and the world he inhabits.

While it’s clear that the book originated as a short story and that the various chapters can be read as such, if you take its origins into account, the narrative of the book flows together wonderfully. The book shows Bod growing from a toddler to a young man and follows his exploration of his unique home and the world outside the graveyard. The stories have a fairy tale quality; most of them even have some sort of moral or life lesson hidden inside. It is a wise book and proves that not every children’s book that has a message has to be boring or feel-good. The Graveyard Book is charming without being twee, in fact in some points it is even quite scary. I’m not sure what age group it was intended for, I’m guessing 9-12, but I know the scene where Bod first meets the Sleer would have kept me awake a night or two when I was that age!

Nobody is a charming protagonist, even if he’s rather precocious. No four or five-year-old should be that well-spoken! But you have to love him, as he is brave, kind, stubborn and just a little naughty. I love his relationship with his adoptive parents and his guardian, Silas. Of the three, it’s Silas who has the largest role in the book and, seemingly, in Bod’s life. At the same time, he’s also the least predictable one, as he is able to actually leave the graveyard, unlike the rest of the occupants. As such, he is Bod’s link to the outside world and his ultimate protector. Bod clearly loves him like a father, but at the same time he doesn’t know how to express that, or rather they don’t express this in conventional ways, like hugging and such.

Each and every chapter, or story if you will, has its strong points. My favourite chapter would have to be the one where Bod goes to school and protects some of the littler kids from two bullies. Though the story that began it all, The Witch’s Headstone, comes a close second. Bod’s innocent friendship and his wanting the best for the titular witch, teaches both compassion and kindness. The concluding story is bittersweet, as is the chapter that precedes it. In the end, The Graveyard Book is about growing up and letting go and realising that every end is in itself a beginning. I sniffled my way through the last pages, but managed to close the book with a smile.

I really enjoyed The Graveyard Book. The illustrations in the book by Chris Riddell are very nice, comic and a little scary at the same time; the perfect complement to the text. I think this book was a great introduction to Gaiman’s work and I’m looking forward to reading it with Emma when she’s older!

Joe Abercrombie – The Blade Itself

Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught up in one feud too many he’s about to become a dead barbarian. leaving nothing behind but bad songs and dead friends.

Jezal dan Luthar, paragon of selfishness, has nothing more dangerous in mind than winning glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.

Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like little better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then he hates everyone. Cutting treason out of the heart of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendships – and his latest trail of corpses could lead straight to the rotten heart of government… if he can just stay alive long enough to follow it…

Another one of my major #bookfails when I discovered the blogospere, and what people where talking about in the SFF community, seemed to be the fact that I hadn’t read any Joe Abercrombie. That was partially remedied when I read his short story The Fool Jobs in the Swords and Dark Magic anthology, but that only emphasised the fact that I needed to read his novels. Now I’ve finished the first book in the First Law trilogy, that #bookfail has been resolved (in part) and while I can say I’ve been missing out, I think I’m still missing out, because I haven’t read the rest of this trilogy.

Much has been said about the ‘new gritty’ and Abercrombie’s part in that. And it’s true, there are no white characters here, only grey, greyer and black. Which makes it surprising that so many of the characters are as likeable as they are. In addition, the book is far less gory, foulmouthed and brutal than I’d expected. Yes, the characters and story are all that, but not nearly as much as I’d been led to believe from discussions I’ve seen on it. Then again, this is only book one, so maybe that’s coming up in the next books in this trilogy.

Usually when there are multiple storylines, in this case three, there is always one I like least and speed past to get to a good bit again. In The Blade Itself I enjoyed all three storylines and never found myself leafing forward to see when we’d return to a different story arc. But, though I enjoyed all three, I didn’t actually like all of our protagonists. Logan and Glokta were my favourites. I liked their inner struggle, between their ‘good’ side and their ‘bad’ side. I found the glimpses we got of these internal conflicts fascinating. In Logen’s case the struggle between him and his Bloody-Nine past and for Glokta, the way his humane side is buried underneath the bitterness and pain of his tortured self. While at times even Jezal seems to be redeemable, Logen and Glokta don’t need to be redeemed, their better side is there, but buried under their past and experiences, whereas Jezal just seems an unpleasant youth who might improve with age and experience.

While the book establishes the world, especially the characters fabulously and sets up the series, there isn’t a lot of plot resolution to the story. Or rather, there is, but far before the ending of the book, which leads to a feeling of open-endedness and means The Blade Itself ends on a cliffhanger with lots of loose ends for the second book to resolve. The book truly feels as book one in a trilogy and doesn’t really stand on its own. The Blade Itself is more of a character-driven book than a plot- or worldbuilding-driven one, but if you like character-heavy books, as I do, you’ll probably enjoy this solid read. I’d definitely recommend having book two and three on standby when reading The Blade Itself, because even if I don’t know why they are going where they’re going, I do want to know what will happen to the characters when they get there. And I wasn’t smart enough to have the other two books already waiting in the wings, so I’ll have to wait a while before I can find out!

Ursula Le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet

A superb work of fantasy, comparable with the work of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Earthsea books follow the fortunes of the wizard Ged from his childhood to an age where magic is giving way to evil.

As a young dragonlord Ged, whose use-name is Sparrowhawk, is sent to the island of Roke to learn the true way of magic. A natural magician, Ged becomes an Archmage and helps the High Priestess Tenar escape from the labyrinth of darkness. But as the years pass, true magic and ancient ways are forced to submit to the powers of evil and death…

These four spellbinding works of imaginative genius offer a parable that is sometimes joyous, sometimes sobering, for readers of all ages.

The Earthsea Quartet, an omnibus version of all four Earthsea books, is another one of my #bookfails. I’d never read any Le Guin and this book has been standing in my bookcase since 1997. I did start it at the time I bought it, but I just couldn’t get past the first fifty to sixty pages. In this way it reminded me of The Lord of the Rings a lot, since I had similar problems there. It wasn’t just the false starts that made the books feel similar to me, it was the language as well. The share a similar stately feel in the rhythm of the prose. But were Tolkien uses the entire section set in the Shire to set up for the action, Le Guin sketches out the scene in three pages and away we go. Though it took me until Ged gets to the school in Roke to become fully immersed in the story.

In the flap text the books are called parables, stories that illustrate a lesson or moral, and the books certainly do that. Each book seems to have its own lesson, while the overarching leitmotif for the books seems to be fear in all its facets and not to let oneself be limited by it. Each book has its own protagonist who has to deal with fear, be it their own or other people’s. Two of the books include a physical journey, while the other two are more spiritual journeys. But in all of them the journey is more important than the destination. There is a lot of symbolism in the books, such as the maze in the Tombs of Atuan, the juxtaposition between the rise of the new king in The Farthest Shore and Ged’s waning power, and the echoing of Ged meeting the Archmage at the fountain on his arrival on Roke and his similarly receiving Arren.

My favourite character in the books is Tenar. I like that we got her history as a girl in The Tombs of Atuan and later got to see the story of her later life in Tehanu. In both books we see her strength and courage and I love how she takes charge of her own life in both of the books. On the whole Tehanu is my favourite of all four books, since everything comes full circle here and all our protagonists return. And of course light conquers dark yet again.

If I had one complaint with the books, it would be that the story didn’t seem finished. This could have been intentional, as a sort of “Endless struggle of good against evil” cycle. It also leaves room for perhaps one more book, in fact a collection of short stories, Tales of Earthsea, and a final novel, The Other Wind, were published in 2001. The Earthsea Quartet remains a classic of the speculative genre, written by one of its Grand Masters. Any fan of the genre should have read some Le Guin and these books. I know I’ll be looking to read more of Ms Le Guin’s work.

China Miéville – The City & The City: a.k.a. Solving my #bookfails part 3

China Miéville - The City & The City
When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Besźel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.

China Miéville’s The City & The City is this year’s awards darling; it won the BSFA award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, tied for the Hugo Award with Paolo Bacigalupi and was nominated for the Nebula Award. Not having read anything by Miéville before, and knowing that this constituted a major #bookfail, The City & The City seemed a good place to start. It was! Although after about 30 pages I concluded I should re-read the book in a month or two to get all of it. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to write a really erudite, clever and funny review, but these days me keeping the same train of thought for more than five minutes without interruptions is rare. So I figured if I actually wanted to post it this century, it’ll just have to be how I write reviews normally.

Besides the murder mystery there are several other mysteries such as Orciny and Breach. All of these are solved by the end of the novel. Or are they? I have to confess that I’m still not sure about Orciny! But I’ll leave that for you to figure out and decide for yourself. I love the intricacy of the cities. The cities of Besźel and Ul Quam are almost an evolved version of the city of Berlin before 1989. Though instead of one city divided by a wall, there are two cities overlapping each other. All that separates them are insubstantial mental barriers held up by the citizens’ mental discipline and a mysterious agency called Breach. These mental barriers are held up by the discipline of unseeing. Miéville has put a lot of thought and detail into this unseeing. Even explaining that children are taught to unsee the other city from a young age, but aren’t liable for small breaches until they are old enough to be expected to understand and take responsibility for their own unseeing. Similarly the rules are applied more leniently to tourists as well. Though, if a tourist knowingly breaches, they are swept up by Breach just as quickly as a normal citizen. The labyrinthine entanglement of the cities and its origin forms the greatest mystery of all and it’s a mystery not even its inhabitants have solved.

I adore crime series, both in book form and on tv, with police procedurals being my favourite kind. So that side of The City & The City was right up my alley. Borlú, Corwi and Dhatt are great characters. I especially loved the interaction between Borlú and Dhatt. The jurisdictional territoriality came through beautifully in Dhatt and his Ul Qoman colleagues, though Dhatt and Borlú end up working together really well and even build a bit of trust between them, which to my eyes made it even better. What made me really happy was Corwi not being the obligatory love interest I was afraid she might be. I loved that she was just a very capable sidekick and that was it. The crime was solved with a twist which, at first, came out of the blue for me and seemed a bit farfetched until the true conclusion followed. And after the story had had a few days to sink in, I began seeing the clues I’d missed. As stated before, I need to re-read the book to get it all.
Best line of the book this time isn’t a funny line, but a line that touched my inner romantic and which reflects the strange and melancholy history between these twin cities of Besźel and Ul Quam:

Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border. (p.160) 

I keep wondering about the rest of the story of these lovers. Where does it go, how does it end? One thing is for sure, it probably isn’t happy.

The City & The City lived up to all the expectations raised by the praise heaped upon it online and I can truly see why it’s won so many awards. It’s also made me want to read more of China Miéville’s work, because one taste of his writing just isn’t enough. The book is a definite recommended read and China Miéville a new addition to my must-read-authors-list!

Blake Charlton – Spellwright: a.k.a. Solving my #bookfails part 2

When I first started following the book blogosphere seriously, back in late January of this year, one book that was receiving a lot of buzz was Spellwright. Once the book was released in the US in March and reviews started coming out, it soon came apparent that it would constitute a major #bookfail not to read this book. So when I spent some of my birthday money at The Book Depository last month, this book had to be part of my birthday loot.

I’m a librarian, so a magic system based on text is certain to have me excited! Imagine my surprise when I had a really hard time getting into said magic system. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I kept getting jarred from the story to examine the cleverness of the use of (for me) everyday words for something as extraordinary as magic; Nicodemus edits spells, is afraid to be censored and forges spells from his muscles in different magical languages. The magic system in Spellwright is original and fresh and one of the most imaginative systems I’ve come across in a long time. By page thirty though, I’d gotten used to the terminology and the story sucked me in.

The story is wonderful. While seemingly another prophecy-driven quest tale where our hero needs to save the world, it’s not. Because Nicodemus is a cacographer and misspells anything but the most basic spells, so how can he be the prophesied hero who saves the world? To me the core of the story is Nico’s struggle with his cacography and trying to come to terms with the fact that there is no magical cure (literally in this case!) and that he is not the promised Halcyon. His desperate hope that he might yet find a way to heal his cacography provides the drive for many of Nico’s choices in the story.

I like that the protagonist is older and acts that way too. He doesn’t get distracted by the usual adolescent fumbling; he’s been there, done that and moved on. He also feels responsible for the cacographic acolytes placed under his supervision in the Drum Tower. One of my favourite chapters has to be the one in which Nicodemus teaches an introductory composition class full of thirteen year-olds. It’s filled with humorous exchanges between Nico and the students, but it’s also full of wisdom. In the conversation between Nico and Derrick, one of the students, Charlton not only manages to show us how having a learning disability affects a person, but also has Nico realise that having a learning disability is not what defines him:

“The truth is that you are neither broken nor gifted; you are only what you make yourself into. In that regard, you and I are no different than any other student.”

To be honest, that was the moment Charlton had me. That scene shone and stayed with me for a long while.

Spellwright made me realise, once more, that any kind of language, be it spoken, written, mathematical, sign or magic, any language that enables two people to communicate is magical. And it is a magic everyone possesses, in one form or another.

All in all, Spellwright is an awesome book, which reminded me why I love fantasy so much. It swept me away while I was reading into a different world, but it also made me think about life and language and I dare say I learned from it. The second novel of the series Spellbound is reportedly scheduled for July next year (I know what I want for my birthday next year!) and Blake tweeted that he’s started work on Disjunction, the last book of the series recently, so there is a lot to look forward to in the coming years. Meanwhile, let’s hope Voyager, his UK publisher, brings him to Europe for a book tour once Spellbound hits the shelves next year!!

Patrick Rothfuss – The Name of the Wind: a.k.a. Solving my #bookfails part 1

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me’As some of you know I started my new job a few weeks ago. When I went out to lunch one afternoon carrying my lunch box and my copy of The Name of the Wind one of my new co-workers asked to see what I was reading. Upon seeing the book she immediately said ‘Oh that’s fantastic, I’ve read that about ten times!’ At first I thought she was pulling my leg, seeing as most of the people I’ve worked with in the past are more likely to read books from the Booker long list or its Dutch equivalent than to read SFF. But she was completely sincere and told me she even followed Patrick Rothfuss’ blog. She’d read the book after seeing a really positive review in a Dutch newspaper in 2007. Which taught me two important things: A) Don’t assume people’s reading habits and B) I was really having a major case of #bookfail because I hadn’t read the book yet!

To be honest I have some major #bookfails. Aside from not having read a lot of the classic fantasy works, my more recent fails include anything by Joe Abercrombie, China Miéville, Mark Charan Newton or Ian McDonald. But in the past week I solved two of them! Not only did I finish The Name of the Wind, but I also read Spellwright by Blake Charlton, the review for which I’ll post at the end of the week. But I’m pretty pleased that I’ve finally managed to catch up on book one of the Kingkiller Chronicles and that unlike the early readers I won’t have to wait for three years for book two (knock on wood!).

Having heard all the rave reviews and lavish praise for the book, I went in with pretty high expectations. Luckily, Patrick Rothfuss didn’t disappoint. The Name of the Wind delivered on all fronts: intricate story telling and world building and beautiful prose.

From the first paragraph of the book I was gripped by the pure word-smithing quality of Rothfuss’ writing. I kept re-reading pieces not because I missed something or didn’t understand, but just to savour the words. For me this is really rare and it placed Rothfuss firmly among my favourite writers. Added to the lovely prose, I really liked the structure of the book. The bookending with the mirroring prologue and epilogue was really well done. I love that in the prologue the silence in three parts is mysterious and draws the reader in, while in the epilogue we understand the silence and it serves to put the reader in a sort of contemplative pause mode to wait for the next book. The story within a story is a tried and treasured storytelling mode, but it really works in this novel, sometimes pausing the narrative to give Bast and the Chronicler (and the reader one supposes) time to react to what happens in Kvothe’s story. It also shows the effect this retelling of his life has on Kvothe. Plus, giving your characters time for a potty break and to make a cuppa before continuing on with the story is just genius!

One of my favourite scenes in the book is the scene where Kote’s regulars come in for dinner and start telling each other Kvothe stories. It was a great way to show us how some of the stories we’d just heard from the man himself are garbled, changed and embellished into the mythologized versions which the world knows and loves.

The magic system, or sympathy as it’s called in the book, is very interesting. In a way it’s almost scientific in adhering to the first law of thermodynamics with a twist. I love how we get to slowly learn alongside Kvothe how it works, and the different applications and dangers of it, culminating in the brilliant scene in which Kvothe teaches his first impromptu class.

We get to see a lot of Rothfuss’ world through Kvothe’s travels with his family and in the latter part of the book. Still there’s a sense that this is just the teeniest part of this world and that there is still a lot left to discover. But all that is yet to be discovered by the reader, is already present behind the curtain of Kvothe’s story, whole and entire instead of feeling as the misty elsewhere you sometimes encounter in books.

Kvothe as a character is likeable, even though sometimes he’s a bit smug in his know-it-all teenager attitude. The smugness is earned and thus often excusable. He’s surrounded by a host of interesting characters, both in his narrative and in the encompassing story. Both Bast and the Chronicler are very interesting, with the sense that the Chronicler isn’t just the available ear in which Kvothe pours his story (even though Bast suggests that’s all he is meant to be), but that he also has a different reason to come find Kvothe. It’ll be interesting to see whether this suspicion will be confirmed later on in the series.

The character that interests me most though and whose back story I hope we get to see in the next book is Auri. Where did she come from and how did she end up living in the Underthing? I love how Kvothe draws out this wild, little girl and gets her to trust him and even joke with him at one point. So I really hope we’ll see more of her!

Up until August 1st this has to be the best book I read this year and I know it’s going to end high in top ten for 2010, if not the number one spot. If you haven’t read this book yet, what are you waiting for? If you have, join me in waiting for March 1st and the publication of the second book in the series The Wise Man’s Fear.