How to Make an American Quilt – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven proof.inddTake one large nation. Kill 99% of the population. Leave for twenty years. See what happens.

That’s essentially the premise of Station Eleven. As the fear factor surrounding the Ebola outbreak in Africa increases this may be the perfect time to read this book. Or perhaps the absolute worst time. Either way, the possibility of a global pandemic has never seemed more terrifying than it does now that I’ve finished this understated and emotive novel.

Emily St. John Mandel clearly subscribes to the ‘less is more’ approach to her storytelling. It’s hard to imagine a gentler, less sensational apocalypse. This is just about the quietest way possible to deal with the end of the world and it makes it terrifying, real and deeply moving.

Humanity is destroyed by Georgia Flu, a highly virulent strain that rushes through the world’s population killing all but 1% of it. We follow several survivors in a patchwork of stories that flit through time and location. Many of the narratives are linked. Some directly, some more oblique but they all offer up more information about the downfall of civilisation and humanity’s stuttering attempts to rise from the ashes. The whole time, as we read there is a nagging question – what is the significance of the graphic novel Station Eleven?

The book reminded me of Stephen Amsterdam’s Things we Didn’t See Coming, another quiet apocalypse tale. These books deal with the human side of things; the difficulty of living a normal life when no such thing exists. Realistic travails of survival, rather than overblown zombie attacks or crushing overlords setting up implausible living conditions. There were passages in this book, that made me weep. This is partly due to be being a parent. Nobody with children likes to imagine the destruction of humanity (well maybe just at bedtime), but the simplicity in which St John Mandel, describes the gradual decline and isolation is gut-wrenching.

If I have a small gripe about the novel, it’s I’m not sure that the backward state of the new America is realistic. But then what do I know? I just feel that whilst everybody may have been dead, the survivors would have lots of practical information accessible; how to generate electricity for example. If Faraday could do it in the early 1800s, I think some of the more upwardly mobile characters in the novel could have managed too. To be honest this was just a small question at the back of my mind, and is largely irrelevant to the quality of the story told. Whilst I might be able to argue that the rate of recovery would have been greater, it easy to see counter arguments to say that Station Eleven pitches it just right.

All in all this is very good read. There are few resolutions, which may frustrate some readers. Instead we have a snapshot of humanity in a state of flux. A disaster like this could feasibly be around the corner. Many of us will die, but humanity will find a way. Life often does. I imagine Emily St John Mandel’s depiction of how we made it would prove to be scarily prescient. This is a understated and beautiful study of humanity in crisis and a valuable addition to the genre.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Program 

Small is beautiful – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

the-miniaturist-978144725089001I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Miniaturist. Now I’ve read it, I’m still not quite sure what I got. It’s part gothic horror, part historical novel, part feminist treatise and all fragile beauty. Every page of the Miniaturist shimmers, its sparkling prose gently evoking seventeenth century Amsterdam. It’s a period and setting I know little about, and was fascinated by the male dominated society ruled equally by the tyranny of a puritanical God and the slavish pursuit of the Guilder. I’m used to seeing Amsterdam as the banner of permissive society, yet in the seventeenth century, oppression was its watchword. Even the baking of gingerbread men was banned to prevent idolatry.

The novel opens (more or less) with Nella Oortman arriving on the doorstep of her husband’s house. Married in haste in the countryside, she has travelled alone to Amsterdam to take up residence in her marital home. Things don’t start well. Eighteen year old Nella sees little of her husband and is instead treated to the hostile disdain of her shrewish sister-in-law, Marin. The house is also occupied by two servants. Cornelia, a maid and orphan, bold and contemptuous, and Otto, a black man, not a slave, yet not free; purchased by Nella’s husband in Suriname. The husband, Johannes, is older; a wealthy business man, almost above the law. He has little time for Nella, and far from home, she feels isolated and alone. Johannes’s one gesture to his wife is to buy her an expensive replica of the house in which they live. Bored, with little to do, Nella sets about furnishing her new present. And that’s how she discovers the miniaturist.

The novel then switches into gothic horror mode. The miniaturist seems to have deep knowledge of Nella’s home, yet Nella knows nothing about the model builder other than that she is a woman.  The miniaturist seems to be able to preternaturally predict events that are yet to happen, making Nella paranoid she is being watched and observed. Things start to go wrong, tensions in the house gradually simmer towards boiling point and we are left to wonder if the miniaturist is predicting or causing the family’s problems.

All this time, secrets come tumbling from every wall. Nella is faced with problem after problem but she gains strength through every setback, gradually growing into the role as woman of the house. Her relationships with the other members of the house ebb and flow. Alliances are forged, broken and remade and with each pitfall Nella becomes stronger. The story plays out across the beautifully described back-drop of Amsterdam, a city of commerce and religious diffidence, ruled over by the powerful and feared Burgomeisters.

Amsterdam may be a city ruled by men, but The Miniaturist is centred around its women. There are five at the heart of the plot, and they are women out of time; progressive and independent. Questions of equality in marriage and in business permeate the story. The book may be set in the seventeenth century, but many of its attitudes survive today. The women here fight battles that should have been left behind centuries ago, but sadly still go on. Much of the novel is devoted to the idea of forging your own path, something women of the time were almost never able to do. Nearly every character is impeded by the social mores of the time. Nobody can truly be themselves.

The book also asks interesting questions about whether we are defined by our expectations.  Much mileage is gained in the plot by having people make assumptions about others. The whole question about whether the miniaturist is clairvoyant boils down to whether humans see what they want to see, rather than what is there. Is the miniaturist a wielder of magic or simply a closer observer of human nature? We all telegraph our aspirations and attitudes on to others, and Burton illustrates this with mesmerising effect.

My initial reaction to reading the Miniaturist was one of slight disappointment, mainly because the novel didn’t go where I expected it to. Instead Burton constructed an altogether more subtle tale than the macabre gothic horror I’d anticipated. She has a created a story that lingers in the mind.  One of fractured connections and shattered dreams. The Miniaturist is a very interesting début, that should appeal to many readers. With memorable characters and evocative settings, it is a book that demands you keep reading. If you’re looking something fresh, without being too out there, The Miniaturist should appeal, no matter what your usual fare.

(Kim Stanley) Robinson Crusoe – The Martian by Andy Weir

the martianIt’s about twenty years since I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Three detail heavy, science rich, political novels about the colonising of Mars. Since then nothing, and now two Mars novel in a week. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising was a grown-up Hunger Games clone set on the red planet. The Martian by Andy Weir is pure Robinson Crusoe.

During a manned mission to Mars something goes wrong and Mark Watney is left behind. His fellow astronauts thought he was dead, but due to a complicated (unlikely) set of circumstances, he survived. Now he’s on his own. It’s not all bad. He has food and equipment meant for six and NASA will lead another mission to Mars, eventually. All he has to do is survive for four years in a habitat designed to work for a month. What could possibly go wrong?

I must confess to being rather late to the Martian party. There are already over 1000 almost all superlative reviews on Amazon, so this review is just another drop in an ocean of praise.

A lot of this book is about the science. It is, in the truest sense of the word, science fiction. If you didn’t enjoy physics and chemistry at school, you might struggle with The Martian as it is detail heavy on chemistry, botany, electronics, astrophysics and much more besides. But there is a very human element to the novel too. There has to be or it wouldn’t work.

The novel essentially breaks down into a set of challenges that Watney has to solve. Andy Weir’s depth of knowledge and research is staggering. Not only can he write convincingly about the technology and processes required to support life on Mars, he details how they may fail and be repaired, or reverse engineered to be used to maintain life in an entirely different way. Beyond that there is a rich vein of humour running through the book. This lightens the potential science overload and makes Watney an intensely likeable character. You absolutely want him to survive this. Well I did anyway. By the end of the book I was quite emotional.

To say more would give stuff away that is best left to the author to reveal. I was slow to pick the Martian up, but I’m so glad I did. It’s an almost perfect piece of tense science fiction. Lo-octane thrills, but utterly breathtaking. It’s a masterclass in storytelling.

Many thanks to the team at Del Ray for sending me a copy of this book. 

Strife on Mars – Red Rising by Pierce Brown

redrisingAny dystopian novel that involves children killing one another is inevitably going to be compared to the Hunger Games. This is probably not a terribly useful thing to do, as the popularity of the Hunger Games far outstrips its quality. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the travails of Katniss when I read them, but the themes and ideas in the Hunger Games have been explored better elsewhere, before and since.

Red Rising does have the pace and excitement of HG, but it also has a better handle on human psychology, making it more reminiscent of Julianna Baggot’s Pure series. Unlike the regime Katniss is subjected to, the striated dystopia that exists in Red Rising is credible. You might actually set up a society that way if you were hell-bent on enslaving sections of the population. It might even work. In this respect the book is far more like Koushun Takami’s masterwork, Battle Royale.

The novel opens with Darrow drilling at the bottom of a very deep mine shaft. Darrow is a ‘Red’, the lowest strata of Mars society. Red’s are manual workers terraforming Mars for the rest of humanity. It’s not an easy life. The Reds sit at the bottom the rainbow. Society is made up of a full spectrum of colours, with each one having its own specific function, most of which are designed to ensure the Reds keep digging.  Sitting atop the chromatic pile are the Golds. To Darrow they are almost living gods. Cruel, impersonal and ruthless.

After Darrow and his wife are sentenced to a brutal whipping, for a minor misdemeanour, events quickly spiral out of control. Before he knows it Darrow is wrenched from his old life to become a cog in the machine of a clandestine group of freedom fighters. A cog maybe, but a vital one. Darrow has been chosen to infiltrate the Golds.

That summary offers little more than the blurb, and it’s hard to review much further without spoiling things. In order to become a Gold and then work his way to the very top, Darrow must enrol in their most deadly games.  What follows is a brutal capture the flag type game that echoes the titles mentioned above. It’s compelling stuff, particularly in the early stages. Darrow must face test after test and even tests within tests. There are several factions, each mirroring aspects of a particular god. The rivalry between factions gives the book and additional dimension, as does the in-fighting within Darrow’s faction. With a group of alphas all vying for control the result is pure Lord of the Flies.

Further tension is added by the need for Darrow to keep his identity secret.  He must trust and be trusted by Golds, the people he hates most in his life. Leaving aside whether it makes sense to run a recruitment process that kills over half of your golden generation and mutilates most of the survivors (though you might wish it when watching the Apprentice), this is an exciting read. I would imagine post traumatic stress disorder most be very common amongst Mars’s upper echelons. The book does require some suspension of belief and the final stages of the trial didn’t really work for me. Having managed so well to keep his story on a human emotional level, Pierce’s final chapters descend into an amorphous melee, which is a shame.

So the book didn’t quite deliver on the promise shown. I’d probably give it silver rather than gold, but there is lots of great stuff here. It’s moving in places, exciting and keeps you guessing as to what’s going on. The final chapters set up nicely for book 2. Unlike the Hunger Games, Red Rising feels like it was always conceived as a multi-part story. Based on the strength of Red Rising, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what Darrow does next.

Many Thanks to Hodder and the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of the book.

Nothing Else Compares – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

boneclocksSince reading Ghostwritten many years ago, I have always been unfeasibly excited at the prospect of a new David Mitchell book. Sometimes this didn’t quite work out for me (Number9Dream and Jacob de Zoet) and other times, I just lapped it up (Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas). I reread Cloud Atlas recently and was blown away by its layers of meaning, and of course, there is that often mentioned sublime structure. So Bone Clocks then? What was it going to do?

I deliberately tried to avoid reading too much about the book before reading it, in the hope of not colouring my expectations (a big problem I had with Jacob de Zoet), but from glancing over this thoughtful review from James Smythe, I knew that this was Mitchell’s most fantastical outing to date; a thought that filled me with a soupçon of trepidation and huge dollop of excitement.

The novel pretty much defies reviewing. It’s similar to Cloud Atlas, in that it has lots of different entwined stories that inform one another. There is a general progression of story through the book, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Bone Clocks is multilayered and has numerous voices, locations and timeframes. It starts in the past (in the 1980s, using a tone very similar to Black Swan Green), before travelling through the present into a possible near future. There are definite science fiction and dystopian themes here, and that will sink some readers’ battleship from the outset. Blend in some paranormal aspects and that’s probably another couple of frigates down. But I loved it.

I didn’t always love it. There were times when I thought Mitchell was meandering to who knows where. Some sections of the book are too long.  Without a strong and coherent overreaching narrative, I was sometimes left with the feeling that whilst I admired each page, the whole was lacking something. What’s clever about the book however, is that with future sections informing the past, what seemed like an inconsequential aside takes on great significance later in the book. Remembering what has gone on can be something of an issue. Not only because so much happens in this book, but also because Mitchell references aspects of his other books in this one. More than once, I had the nagging feeling that the author was alluding to something external and I had the pleasure of trying to piece together what it was.

There is an amusing tone of self reference in the book.  A fêted author, who previously wrote a book of dazzling structure, has a reviewer dismissing his latest book with ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look…’ Mitchell perhaps pre-empting his own critiques, or at stating clearly he knows where his book falls. For Bone Clocks is indeed a fantasy book with state of the world pretensions and frankly, that it is, is its strength.

There are sections that tackle war-correspondence, the absurd situation in Iraq and its fomentation of animosity towards the West (and as we set out with air-strikes once again, this could not feel more relevant). Our over-reliance on technology and the somnambulance it induces, causing the human race to drowsily stumble into disaster. This book has a huge message on the perils of climate change. Woven through all this is a story of highly imaginative fiction, tying each theme together. It’s fantastic in every sense.

This being a David Mitchell novel, use of language is peerless. Whilst some may be tempted to dismiss his fantasy/paranormal conceits as silly, they are rendered in such quality prose, they feel as real as the gunfights in Baghdad. There is something to love on almost every page. There were times when I wondered where this book was going, but I was frequently struck by how much I was enjoying reading it. This is quite an unusual phenomenon. Some books suck you in; you read without noticing the passage of time. This one would often leave me dazzled. I was taken out of story, slightly breathless, caught up in the beauty of expression and ideas.

Much like Cloud Atlas the only way you’re going to find out if you’re going to like The Bone Clocks is to read it. No amount of review reading will be able to tell you the relationship you’ll have this book. If I could, I’d marry it. At the very least I’m looking forward to shacking up with it somewhere quiet again soon.

Words and Pictures – Operation Red Jericho by Joshua Mowll

redjerichoNine years ago, Joshua Mowll and I both had babies.

Well, in truth, neither of us did, but I became a dad for the first time and Joshua brought into existence his beautiful children’s novel, Operation Red Jericho. I remember vividly reading Amanda Craig’s review in the Times and thinking, I must find this book. Fortunately, I worked in Waterstones at the time, so this was a fairly straightforward process. The book was a work of art. A beautiful textured, Moleskine-like notebook, filled with the most incredible maps, pictures and diagrams. It had fold out schematics of fictional, fantastical vehicles and devices. It was something to treasure, even if I never read it.

I justified the purchase, because I had a son now, and yes I should be buying nappies, clothes and exorbitantly priced travel systems, but one day, I was going to need to read him books, and well, it’s good to plan ahead. The following year, Operation Typhoon Shore arrived and finally Operation Storm City came along too. I bought them all and they sat on the shelf until this summer.

This year, having read my son the Hobbit but floundered with the Lord of the Rings (he was insistent, but we got lost in the fog on the barrow downs), we were looking for something else to read. After a couple of false starts I pulled down Red Jericho and lured him in with the blueprint of a nemoesque subermsible. He took the bait, hook, line and sinker…

It’s fair to say he absolutely loved the adventures of Becca and Doug McKenzie. You can always tell a good children’s book, by the size of the tantrum at the end of a chapter. It’s a sad truth (or at least it is in this house) that the best books make getting the children off to sleep all the harder. The story is in the ‘Boys Own’ mould; plucky upper class children, who are far too inquisitive for their own good. Occasionally I was just waiting for somebody to request ‘lashings of ginger beer,’ but this shouldn’t put you off. Characterisation is strong, and whether male or female all have an equal part in the daring-do.  redreichosub

The plot involves disappearing parents, pirates, explosions, kidnapping, sword fights, madcap inventions and shadowy elite warriors. There really is nothing not to like. Set in Asia during the 1920s it feels historically accurate, aided and abetted by colourful maps, excerpts from mocked-up journals and blurry ‘antique’ photographs. Doug and Becca discover their parents were members of a secret society called the ‘Guild of Specialists’ but the children have no idea what they were searching for when they went missing. Becca and Doug’s investigations take them to various dens of iniquity, and situations more dangerous than they could have imagined. Running alongside are a French scientist wanted for a murder and a mysterious and powerful element, Zoridium, that has the potential to change the world.

Some of the language was a little too dense for Ethan (who’s coming up 9), he certainly would have been too young to read it himself, but as a read aloud book it was great. It provoked much pre-bed discussion.  The illustrations are peerless, and perfect for firing up the imaginations of inquisitive children. The story held his interest, and whilst there was the occasional gory bit, there was nothing to upset him. Upon finishing Red Jericho, he immediately started leafing through Typhoon Shore. I don’t think a recommendation can come higher than that. I’m not sure these books are still in print, but they are well worth picking up for they are works of art with brilliant stories. What more incentive do you need?

Once Upon a Time in the West – The Son by Philipp Meyer

the sonI must confess I’m slightly baffled by the almost universal brilliant reviews this book has received. The star givers on Amazon can be a fickle bunch and this sweeping but detail heavy epic has, I would have thought, much to put off the casual reader. Certainly I’ve seen less forgiving reviews on books (often only partially read), that were much more accessible than ‘The Son’.

Around page 250 I nearly gave up. I’d slogged through graphic details of rape, murder, scalping, pillage, horse riding, landscapes and oil wells, but found the book lacked urgency and direction. Despite this, I pressed on and I am glad I did.

For a brief time I thought ‘The Son’ was going to be one of those books that requires perseverance but ultimately pays back its readers’ persistence with interest. A novel where the effort and exercise of having read it make the fruit it bears taste all the sweeter. Some of my favourite novels fit into this category and The Son was almost there, before fading away to a rather flat conclusion. Flat yet fitting.

There are three narrative threads, but they unwind at a glacial pace. Even the story of the young Eli McCullough witnessing the cold blooded murder of his family before being abducted by Comanche Indians failed to hold my interest across so many pages. The other stories describe further generations of McCulloughs, all descended from ‘The Colonel'; family patriarch Eli, who lived to be one hundred years old and was by all accounts a right royal bastard.

Peter McCullough writing in 1917 is something of a black sheep in the family; he appears to have a conscience. He is caught in a maelstrom of events as a family of Mexicans are gunned down after an alleged cow rustling incident (unless it was horses, it was a lot of pages ago). Jeanne Anne McCullough, narrates her story from 1980’s, towards the end of her life. She is the head of a oil company, and a tough woman in a man’s world.  Each of the three narratives is told in chapters one after the other. ie Eli, Peter, Jeanne, Eli, Peter, Jeanne… As the novel progresses the three strands weave together forming a tapestry of the history of Texas.

Whilst not completely convinced by the novel as a whole (It’s too long and Jeanne Anne’s tale is significantly weaker than the other two), it contains much to admire and enjoy. There are some breathtaking passages with language that is rich and authentic. The view given of Texas, its inception and rise to oil-fuelled supremacy is fascinating. It’s a subject I knew little about, and it inspired me to do a little further reading to find out more. Meyer’s brutal but sensitive depiction of the Comanche tribe is often fascinating despite slowing the pace of the narrative. This is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Its violence is unrelenting, vivid and unflinching. Life was hard and cheap in frontier America. It’s a land soaked in blood. (I flicked through the my copy today, stopping randomly. On any given page there was at least some reference to violence and death.)

Above everything, The Son offers a view of contemporary society through the lens of the past. There is a beautiful chapter about the capture and slaughter of a buffalo that says as much about modern consumerism and waste than it does about the eating habits of the Comanche. There is great weight lent to the idea that the hard work of our forefathers is often squandered by later generations. Wealth and comfort breed laziness and a contempt for the hard work that gave us the warmth and security in the first place.

Finally, there is a definite sense of the impermanence of man. The Son unexpectedly dovetailed with my previous read ‘The King and the Slave’; two tales about empire separated by 7000 miles and 2500 years. Both novels examine the idea that rulers come and go. Those ousted first ousted somebody else. Nothing is permanent and legends outlive empires. The sense of the land being scarred but unmoved by the events of The Son is very real. The land lives on long after those who walk it are dead.

The end of the novel irritated me. Having stuck to over 500 pages in his 1,2,3,1,2,3 structure, Meyer suddenly adds a fourth voice. This is a personal bugbear, but I think if an author chooses a device they should stick to it. To deviate feels like cheating, but perhaps that’s just me. Overall I found The Son to be a desperately bleak novel. It gives a depressingly dim (accurate) view of human nature. It is no way a comfortable read and as such I find it difficult to recommend, but as an examination of culture, habits and history of the American west, it is a fascinating and illuminating read.

The Myth of Power – The King and the Slave by Tim Leach

the-king-and-the-slaveThe King and The Slave is the follow up to Tim Leach’s The Last King of Lydia, one of my favourite books of recent years. LKoL is very readable historical fiction based around the writings of Herodotus, and is a book with great depth and meaning. I’m always wary when reading follow ups to beloved novels. Often the sequels can only disappoint. So how does The King and The Slave compare?

I must confess, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as LKoL, though I think to do so was almost impossible. I’d come to the first book without expectation and was taken completely by surprise by its brilliance. Once again, the events in this book were recorded by Herodotus. As historical fiction, the King and the Slave is highly readable, but I found it didn’t quite have the depth of the its predecessor.

I suspect this is due to the source material. At the centre of LKoL was Croseus’s discussion with Solon about the nature of happiness. Throughout the book there are questions of power, happiness and whether one can lead to the other. Leach was further aided by depicting Cyrus the Great, a compassionate and thinking leader, whose philosophical conversations with Croseus added much to the book.

This book opens with the death of Cyrus and the ascension to the throne of his son Cambyses. Immediately Croseus is pushed to the periphery of the court, so he is less influential in the story, but worse, from the point of view of subtlety and nuance, Cambyses is as mad as a hat box full of frogs.

In place of subtle discourse, we have atrocities perpetrated by an insecure monarch out of control. Cambyses decisions are driven by a desire to step out of his father’s shadow. In an attempt to show his strength he becomes a brutal dictator. As he works to expand his empire Cambyses is uncaring of friend and foe alike.

There are some truly horrific passages in The King and the Slave. It makes for brutal reading. Cambyses’s indifference to loss of life made me feel queasy. Croseus tires to mitigate his new master’s actions but with little effect. Leach portrays Cambyses as an ancient equivalent of Stalin, with meaningless purges and subordinates terrified to offer advice. It’s an interesting take on ancient leaders; I’m much more used to seeing twentieth century leaders depicted in this way. It ties in with one of the themes of LKoL. The idea that humanity has changed very little in the 2500 years.

Introspection can be found in the novel, not in the discourse between king and slave, but in the friendship of a triumvirate of slaves, Croseus, Isocrates and his wife Maia.  Their relationship is subtle, complex, almost unfathomable, but forms the core that holds up both books, particularly tKatS. Through these three Leach explores the nature of love and sacrifice.

The final chapters of this book elevate it towards the same heights as its predecessor. Delicate and emotive they even open up the title of the novel to interpretation. Who is slave and who is king? Leach offers several alternative candidates for both. The Croseus novels examine the power of myth and the myth of power. They analyse the mutability of history and the seductive nature of a good story. History might be written by the victors, but it’s not always easy to tell who has won. With The King and the Slave, Tim Leach has once again delivered top notch historical fiction.

Don’t take my word for it, other reviews can be found by Kate at For Winter Nights and Parmenion Books 

Many Thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book. 

Prophecy, Mage, Destiny and Crime – Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene

review-projectThis review is written as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.

Smiler’s Fair is an unassuming looking book.  It’s a fantasy, which at first I found difficult to believe as there’s no heavily cloaked man on the cover.  The blurb promises goatherds, orphans, lonely warriors and inescapable destiny. Hardly the stuff of original fiction, yet the book is garnering some stellar reviews. So what’s the deal?

This is a secondary world fantasy with a varied host of characters, whose stories gradually entwine. I love this device, so I was predisposed to enjoy the book, but all the same I am confident in proclaiming that Rebecca Levene has created something very special . Special and highly original. Original yet comfortingly familiar. The individual stories here are not particularly remarkable, nor is there a huge amount of excitement attached to each one. It’s the way in which they are bound together that makes the book so refreshing.SmilersFair_VISUAL1

Levene has taken lots of tired tropes and created something innovative and interesting. There are six characters all with unique (and often peculiar) outlooks on life. From each of their stories the reader experiences a little more of Levene’s world. A world that is painstakingly created. Not so much geographically and historically but more socio- and psychologically. Levene does not map rivers and mountain ranges, instead she charts morals and beliefs. She’s a Tolkien of ethics and human frailty.

The Smiler’s Fair at the centre of the book is a travelling fair, continually moving, bringing delights and vice wherever it travels. All the players intersect with the Fair at some point in the novel and its continual motion gives the novel an additional dynamic dimension. The unfaltering progression of the fair propels the novel towards its portentous and momentous conclusion. I don’t want too say much more than that. The books is textured, nuanced and best explored with few preconceptions.

Reading the book I was put in mind of reading the Belgariad for the first time, almost thirty years ago. The characters and writing style are similar, but Levene has infused Smiler’s Fair with modern and realistic dilemma. Characterisation is excellent. Characters react in ways you would never expect, and interact with each other in ways which took me completely by surprise. The ethical questions that stand at the centre of the book, the nature of good and evil and the power of myth and belief, are fascinating. I’ve never seen moral ambiguities addressed so well in fantasy fiction and I found myself greatly envious of Levene’s talent.  A sense of dread permeates the book, and after it wells up to the top of the story, the outcome is totally unexpected. The ending is awesome; as painful a cliffhanger as I’ve read in many a year. I haven’t awaited a sequel this much for a very long time.

Are you going to Smiler’s Fair? It’s unique and utterly brilliant, so you should probably catch up with it fast. Once more the goatherd is king (maybe…)

Many thanks to Anne and the Hodderscape review project for sending me a copy of this book. (Let me know when you’ve got book two, please!!!) 

Asleep by the interval – The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

repulicIf Republic of Thieves were a heist, it would be the one where the mark falls asleep halfway through the con and wakes to discover hours of he’s lost £8.99 of his hard earned cash.

When the Lies of Locke Lamora burst onto the fantasy scene, I was blown away. Scott Lynch’s début reinvigorated my view of fantasy fiction. Book two was a pale imitation, and it was with some trepidation that I took up book 3.  All the more so considering its troubled route to publication, taking some five years. Lynch suffered from depression in the intervening period and so it is great credit to him and his mental fortitude that the book ever saw the light of day. As such, I feel almost obliged to like it more, but whilst I enjoyed elements of the book, overall I found it disappointing.

The problem for me is the length of the book. Considering the difficulties of bringing the book to fruition, it seems incredible that the final product was so long. A much tighter edit was needed. There are two strands to the book, one set in the past, before the events of the first book (giving Lynch the opportunity to bring back the interesting characters he killed in ‘Lies’). The other strand follows on directly where ‘Skies’ left off, with Locke poisoned and close to death.

There’s nothing wrong with this method of storytelling. Events in the prequel tale do impinge on the character’s behaviour in the other narrative, but the problem is that neither tale is very interesting. Not after each story is diluted down across three hundred and fifty pages.  Weighing in at over 700 pages, the Republic of Thieves is at least 300 too long. One strand is about the staging of a play and the other manipulating a political election. These are not the most exciting topics on which to base a fantasy novel. It can be done, but this is neither ‘Noises Off’ nor ‘The West Wing.’

Apart from the fact we learn that Locke loves his political opponent from the main story, the flashback narrative and its play-acting are entirely superfluous. If I was unkind, I would be tempted to suggest that Lynch had a burning desire to write terrible mock Shakespearean dialogue and this was the best way he could conceive for  it to see the light of day. It may have been justified if the production turned out to be a small part of a larger swindle, the true of extent of which was visible only as the last piece of the puzzle dropped into position. Instead, events control Locke and his troupe, not the other way around and whilst there is some half-hearted trickery, it’s nothing compared with that in the first book.

The main narrative is underpowered. I imagine it’s bloody hard to think of exciting and realistic tit-for-tat escapades of a fake election. Lynch doesn’t manage it. It’s diverting at best, and the final pay off as Locke tips his hand to his opponent is about as exciting as a spoiled ballot paper. To make matters worse, it transpires that the entire book is really a holding mechanism for a wider story arc, based around Locke Lamora’s true identity and his villainous enemy ‘The Falconer’.  This deeper story is potentially more interesting, but it leaves the reader feeling cheated. It’s as though the entire book existed just to give the final chapter some background, but the two barely relate to one another so it’s hard to see why one needed to follow the other.

It’s not all bad. Lynch hasn’t lost his ear for snappy dialogue, and once again he delivers up the finest and ripest insults available in the genre. Characterisation is still strong. Locke and Jean are fine creations, as are the rest of the Gentlemen Bastards. The complicated relationship between Locke and his love interest is well written, if long-winded.  Lynch’s descriptive prowess is second to none. We moved from one evocative scene to another, but travelling along them was like a procession.  I very much enjoyed the first third of the book, but after that it didn’t really have any other gears. Just more of the same with  little build up of excitement or tension.

After three hundred pages I was expecting greatness, by 600 I just wanted the damn thing to end. With the intriguing questions posed in the final chapters, I would probably read another Lynch tome, but the Gentlemen Bastards are down to the very last of the currency accrued from their audacious exploits in the Lies of Locke Lamora. Let’s hope they spend it wisely.