It seems foolish to complain that this book is so exceptionally long; like complaining the Bible has too much religion, or the Magna Carta has too much politics. The complaint that really ought to be laid at Tolstoy’s door is this: for a writer so obtusely uneconomical with his words, he does not do nearly as much with them as he might have. When an author spends thousands of pages describing a place, a person, an idea; there ought to be a strong emotional or impressionable impact on the reader. Tolstoy comes a certain distance towards this. Certainly it would be untrue to claim that he does not adequately describe his creations. It would not be fair to say that his is a problem of detail. Rather, it is a problem of beauty.
Compare him for an instance with Melville. Melville is thicker and sludgier and harder to read for pleasure than Tolstoy, but when he describes a smoke-rimed tavern or the vivifying enormity of a storm, it is impossible to fail to be moved and captured. Or let us look at Hemingway. If the problem is a problem of inadequate floridness, let us pit Tolstoy against an author renowned for his refusal to bow to poetry! But there is an impact and a seething, brusque emotion in Hemingway that is utterly devoid in War and Peace.
This book feels like reading Pride and Prejudice seven times through, only with more death and without Jane Austen’s humour. The Peace is bland drawing-room scandal and folly. The War is interesting, but only on an intellectual level. This summary seems damning, and it is distinctly peculiar that the book is honestly not a bad read. In fact, in spite of its unnecessary length it is really worth the time; particularly in an age when the vapid lives of soap opera and sitcom characters fill vastly more hours than it takes to plough through this novel. The point is not that it is uninteresting. The characters are immaculately drawn (those that matter, anyway) and the historical narrative is truly fascinating. In fact, by the end of the (first) epilogue, this could almost be called a page-turner.
The problems then, if they are not the book’s monstrous size or quality of writing, are twofold. First is simply a case of expectation. Tolstoy’s style (or the styles of at least two of his translators) is vexingly drifty, without a very powerful narrative stamp. He seems to absorb by osmosis some of the aristocratic lassitude of Pierre and the Rostovs, and there is a displeasing lack of decisive direction. For an author to take his readers so deeply into any story, he really must have the humour or the choler or the wryness to truly captivate his reader: not merely to tell an interesting story and trust that the reader is following along. The second problem is the generally unremarkable aspect of so many of his characters. There is nobody to love and nobody to hate.
Books are paintings, and come in as many sharply contrasting styles as works of visual art. There are the Caravaggios, with menacingly daubed streaks of deep contrast and dazzling light. There are impressionistic streams of consciousness or works of muzzy pointillism. But if Tolstoy painted, he would paint an enormous canvas with a Gainsborough landscape, covering the entire wall of a gallery and dotting in each painstaking figure and wisp of cloud. This is the lasting feeling of War and Peace: it leaves nothing out, and there is nothing to complain about; but it never draws itself to a point as if to say this!–is what the story is about!
“What the Founders said and why it still matters” is the proclamation emblazoned on the front of this ponderous new diatribe. Would that this boast were true! It can be difficult for non-Americans to understand (viscerally if not intellectually) why the United States stands so fiercely and so doggedly to its historical codifications, and a passionately-written explanation of why this might be the case is an interesting and compelling prospect.
Alas! For Adam Freedman does not address his book to the earnest seeker, but rather to the confirmed disciple. Like a new convert turning to a book of theology only to be driven thence by sludgy discussions on the Greek translation of parousia, readers of The Naked Constitution will be confronted almost immediately by a schoolyard bicker about whether conservatives or liberals are true “originalists”. There is not really an honest attempt to explain how the determination of “original intent” is uncovered, nor even to explain why original intent is even important.
In examining the general mindset of men over two centuries dead, it might be expected that the politics of the olden days would take precedence, but instead this book is firmly entrenched in scouring through court decisions and bills passed in the last two decades–particularly under Clinton and under Obama. And that is the real meat and bones of this tract. It is a fiercely partisan denunciation of liberalism in the early twenty-first century, and little else. It makes some very good points and some poorer ones; it descends to pettiness as often as it makes honest and thought-provoking points. But it emphatically does not answer the thorny issue so proudly displayed on its cover. If anything, it proves only that the United States Constitution is irrelevant as a basis for government, as it can be (and is) dissected and patched back together by liberals and conservatives alike, to serve their own particular interests. In one or two shameless slip-ups, Freedman does exactly this, mentioning in passing that such-and-such constitutional idea cannot really apply in today’s world, and ought to rather mean so-and-so.
Besides this, there are the same old tired political talking points that obsess modern commentators so: the anachronistic gun-worship, the quibbling and complaining about nineteenth-century federalism, bickering about the division between church and state, and where the lines are drawn, and how thickly, and by whom. There is a great deal to value in this book, but it is either irritatingly dishonest, or else an abysmal failure in its central point and intention. Ultimately, that makes it just another run-of-the-mill polemic, and while interesting on its own merits, it has nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other books of the same shade.
Bernard Cornwell is a tricky fellow to define, and his books are not the easiest to anticipate. He is certainly a very able writer; there is no argument to be made on that count. One of the biggest fluctuations in his writing quality tends to be his restraint, where he allows himself to become so carried away in depicting a ruthless and gritty realism that it turns into an unreadable slush of perverted sex and graphic violence. Another of his faults is linked even closer to his commitment to realism: there are a lot of people in real life who are cruel, selfish monsters that some of his books become populated exclusively with characters who are unappealing in every regard.
Now, obviously if he fell victim to these two failings in every one of his books, he could hardly be called an able writer. The truth is that when he makes his mark, he shines. It would not be a stretch to name him the best writer of historical fiction working today. It would even to be fair to name him as being among the best writers of historical fiction of all time. Picking up one of his books might rightly be a venture carried with great trepidation, but it will never be a worthless effort.
This particular entry in the trilogy that became a loosely-bound series drifting through the Hundred Years War shows writing that is more mature than anything in his Richard Sharpe series, and even than some of the writing in his excellent Arthurian trilogy. This is not to say his writing is faultless. There are momentary lapses, overly-dramatic blunders, and storytelling cul-de-sacs; but the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, and he produces an epic and thoroughly gripping adventure story that no reader could justly describe as boring.
The central quest that runs through the story is a rather disappointing MacGuffin, and this is really an excuse to place characters Cornwell has established elsewhere onto the stage in the midst of a deeply intriguing historical battle, and allow them to thrive. This is not necessarily a bad choice, as a plot that might easily have felt like the barrel-scrapings of that infamous incompetent Dan Brown, is instead turned into a peripheral curiosity that does a fine job of pacing beside the book without ever overpowering the human dynamics of the plot.
This, then, is where Cornwell shines, and what turns 1356 from just another battle told from the perspective of a footsoldier into something of note. His ensemble cast of characters are cleverly crafted, and there is a sense of real human depth to them. Their motivations and their conflicting passions are threaded gently into the plot without any ham-fisted exposition, and an impressive amount of time is spent developing even extraneous characters. Thomas of Hookton is a fellow explored pretty thoroughly in others of Cornwell’s books, but as with Sharpe the books are written so as generally to be legible–and even enticing and fulfilling–even when read out of chronology. In 1356 there are strong echoes of Cornwell’s Arthur, though decidedly less tragic in flavour, which can be nothing if not a strength.
This is not the best of Cornwell’s work, but the excellence with which it is written ought to stand then as a proof in its own right of this author’s abilities and attention to detail. There are many writers who rest easily on the laurels of past successes, and it is a genuine relief to find that Bernard Cornwell has not fallen prey to laziness in his later books. This is a book easy to recommend, and if it serves as a gateway to the author’s stronger work, so much the better. But it is a fine piece of work on its own merits.
Another of Dick’s non-science fiction novels, Humpty Dumpty is more notable for its carefully constructed style than for its story. It might not have mattered what Dick wrote about here; as much as how he wrote it. Indeed, there is the distinct feeling that the book might have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter, or six hundred pages longer, and with much the same set of results and level of enjoyment as in its actual form.
At times Dick appears to be emulating the voice of a latter-day Steinbeck, peeling back the shiny bakelite exterior of the postwar boom to point his spotlight at ordinary and irrational people making bad decisions and doing foolish things. Less sympathetic than the Joads, certainly; but easier to identify with, even if the reader recoils in awkward realisation at the identification.
Written before the majority of his science fiction work, it is truly interesting to see the similarities between Humpty Dumpty‘s Jim Fergesson and Al Miller, and later characters like Joe Chip or Rick Deckard, and even to speculate towards some of the stylistic choices that buoyed up Dick’s fantastic imagination and contributed so much to his success. Decades before a greasy and industrial aesthetic became a defining trait in the science fiction genre, Dick was already fascinated with the working class, the uneducated, the addicted and the vast multicoloured array of virtues and vices that they shared.
It is difficult to decide whether this book ought to be recommended to regular readers of Philip K. Dick and other speculative fiction, or for readers of Arthur Miller and shabby grey realism. It is remarkably far from the beaten track for the former, and doesn’t really compare all that favourably for the latter. Difficult, then, to decide for whom it ought to be recommended; but not difficult to recommend.
There are few reasons to elevate this book above any other historical biography. In fact, it might be expected that a book about so colourful a character as Peter ought to make thrilling reading from start to finish. There are, therefore, two things that must be granted to Abbott before commencing. The first is the admission that in spite of such a colourful subject, he seldom succumbed to the temptation to indulge in creative writing, or really any sort of sensationalism whatsoever. Rather than seeking to either panegyrise or demonise Peter with a magniloquent pen, he does his level best to judge him as a seventeenth century monarch, and to give the dull but important scenes from his life at least equal footing with the rambunctious but trivial.
Abbott’s second success lies in his crucial effort to offer his suggestions on the significance of Peter’s reign and life, both on Russia and on European history. He strikes a patient and pleasant balance between investigating the long-term effects of Peter’s reign, without overstepping his bounds as a reporter and analyst of a particular era.
With these bright spots acknowledged, it must be said that this book is neither groundbreaking nor controversial. It is a bread-and-butter history text, and while useful or even necessary for a student of Russian history, has little unique to recommend it, either in its facts or in its style. Again: it should be impressed upon the prospective reader that these two points in favour of Abbott’s history are issues that many, many other historians trip upon, and trip upon badly. Peter the Great is extremely useful, and it is even quite interesting. It isn’t thrilling, and if the author cannot really be faulted for this then he cannot either be lionised for a rather prosaic work. It is in many ways like reading a school textbook. Some very memorable hours can be whiled away in reading school textbooks, but when in school, even poetry textbooks are never poetic.
The damnable thing about the publishing industry is that it is so terribly big. An unassailable bulwark against the flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the infinite depths of would-be writers, with the carefully-patrolled floodgates channelling the cream that has risen to the top of this morass into the grateful lap of the discerning reader. Of course, it goes without saying that dreadful nonsense and tiresome rubbish end up slipping past to join the real literature; but it is a truth seldom acknowledged that the faceless might of the publishing industry really has no ready way to capture the work of truly excellent authors who find themselves without established names or careers.
The Ordinary Knight is a self-published fantasy romance; a description liable to turn absolutely no heads and several stomachs. Surprisingly, it is absolutely terrific. Competently written and finely paced, it is a fairytale adventure whose only fault is its brevity, and a sweetly imagined fantasy world that is impressionistic and pristine. There is little in the story that is subtle or particularly subversive: no neckbreaking plot twists or philosophical challenges. Only a fine old-fashioned adventure tale, with echoes of the inimitable Kate DiCamillo, and a timeless quality such as only the best fantasy authors can manage, whose work appeals both to its intended childhood demographic, and also to adults grown wistful.
The story is driven far more by its characters than by exposition or a detailed description of the fantastic world in which they dwell, but there are tantalising glimpses of a sugarplum world that begs to be explored in further depth. Burke can be lavish in her set-pieces and is as obvious as a Roald Dahl in where her sympathies lie: the heroes are without exception paragons of virtue, yet manage the trick of being likeable at the same time. The dialogue is clear and occasionally witty, and the conclusion manages to be truly epic without losing the childlike atmosphere so carefully cultivated throughout.
The glowing reception that The Ordinary Knight so richly deserves is offset and dimmed slightly by the second loosely-related story, The Invisible Princess. Much of the magic is lost in the sequel, and the pathos is laid on with a trowel, as moonstruck lovers bemoan in dreadful melodrama how utterly and hopelessly they yearn for each other. There is little fantastical, and almost no development, and the least said about it the better. It might be a perfectly acceptable straight romance novel, but it is emphatically not on the same level as its prequel, either in genre or in professionalism.
Nevertheless, this lapse is scarcely an excuse to smear the first of the two books. Read the first by all means, and proceed with the second only if you like that sort of thing. But for The Ordinary Knight to while away its days as just another unread vanity publication would be a travesty. An excellent book, a surprise success, and hopefully indicative of the sort of thing to come from this marvellously talented writer.
A clear victim of Second Album Syndrome, Dune Messiah is a difficult but ultimately interesting book that suffers from its over-indulgence, and manages only to be ‘good’ where its prequel was good and enjoyable.
There is something truly damaging about stories that endeavour to look beneath the myth and beneath the magic and begin to question how things work. There is bound to be a disappointment in any story that seeks to explain what happens next. This is particularly the case with adventure stories. A narrative about the middle age of Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay would have been tiresome; the story of Frodo’s journey to the Undying Lands would have been unreadable; Jim Hawkins’ search for the elusive Long John Silver might have been of interest, but everything of worth that it brought to the table would have removed something else from the majesty of the original story. Even the apocryphal books of the Maccabees are considerably less exciting and thrilling than the canonical Bible.
Dune left the reader with a towering fait accompli and a magical sense of high destiny and immaculate purpose. There was hardly an implied “happily ever after”, but there certainly was a sense of “magically ever after”. Frank Herbert actually did an excellent job of transcribing an ending that was positively thrumming with impending and implied mysticism and adventure into an excellent sequel, but it was emphatically a summing up and a postscript conclusion, not a new adventure. The surprise is not found in the discovery that Dune Messiah is not as good as Dune; it is found in the fact that it is better than it might have been. Although that is good news, it is not the best verdict that might be offered of any book.
Messiah stands the strongest when it attempts to rebuild the sense of grand universal myth that vibrated so wonderfully in its prequel. While it does great damage to the picture of the Muad’Dib presented in Dune by dismantling every skeleton and attempting to painstakingly rebuild each with flesh and skin, there is a tantalising glimpse into a wider universe that allows the book to stand at least with its head held high. Its success, in other words, is not in its exposition and revelations, but in the creation of new skeletons: new unanswered questions and veiled mysteries.
Its cast of main characters is not quite bungled, but also demonstrates none of the expertise that Herbert showed in his earlier book. In spite of having far fewer important figures, the only ones who really shine are those imported from the prequel, and readers will feel that a great opportunity was missed to introduce a new vein of richness into the series. A notable exception is the introduction of the Tleilaxu, who provide a nebulous and intriguing set of antagonists almost fit to equal the Harkonnen.
This book is certainly worth reading, but is perhaps best read with reservations and with lower expectations. It is certainly science fiction at its best, but it is emphatically not Frank Herbert at his best.
This is as difficult a book to review as it is to read. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this weblog what a rare pleasure it is to finish reading a book, and only recollect afterwards that one has been forced to overlook no clumsy grammar or contrived plotline, and forgive the author for no grave errors. We can talk about a willing suspension of disbelief: perhaps the time has come to talk about a willing suspension of criticism. Conrad is another of these talented authors for whom this willing suspension of criticism is unnecessary. His novel is brisk and rich in language and in detail. Heart of Darkness reads like a stone plunged into a calm pool: sudden, abrupt, harsh, and without apology. It is delightful to read, simply for the eloquent lavishness of the author’s pen. On that account, it is a very good book indeed.
The structural conceit of the unlikely narrator regaling a boat full of dozy sailors with his tale is an uncertain prospect, and can seem like a vague annoyance when it crops up for a sentence or two at rare intervals; nothing else in the manner in which the book is laid out can possibly cause dismay. It is the story itself that seems a little unsatisfying, after a while. There is a heavy atmosphere of leaden inevitability, borne out stolidly and without much in the way of relief. Almost everything in this short story happens as if it were predestined, and happens very quickly at that.
If the darkness is in a hurry to gobble the narrator and all his accomplices up, then it is in a greater hurry to belch them all up at the end. While there is a certain amount of dramatic tension, it all takes place so rapidly that there is really no time for the reader to either digest what has happened, or adapt to it. This is an important book, and deserving of its place in literary history. It is a pleasure to read, but not necessarily a pleasure to reflect upon.
There are many peculiar things about this book. It is not like Márquez’s fiction. It is too straightforward, too politely arranged and linear. There are too many straight lines and sober summaries. But then, it is unlike so many nonfiction books, as well. Garcia Márquez has no need to trumpet his own particular style or voice over the events he describes (his style has plenty of outlets), and so the narrative is unnervingly raw, without the bluster of a newspaper or the bustling self-importance of a professional writer.
The author’s attraction towards the macabre and the tragic are one point of resonance in his choice of this particular story to tell. In a sense, this book demonstrates a single side of the magic realism genre that Márquez helped to create: the harrowing story of the kidnapping, with all of its unsavoury boors and capricious thugs, is told with a sense of reverent wonder at the majesty of the hallowed normal. There are no casual treatments of supernatural happenings, but in spite of the real setting there is a subtle and underlying sense that something quite extraordinary might be taking place.
Ultimately, the weakest part of this story is simply the fact that it is not the most interesting of events to read about. A decades-old kidnapping that dominated the headlines of a distant corner of the globe for a matter of months, before coming to a generally unremarkable end will struggle to find a place on a bookshelf crammed with mystical kingdoms and daring exploits. It will even struggle to find a place on a shelf containing only books by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But there is an appeal in the honesty of the writing. It is a shame that more great writers do not follow this example, and humble themselves into writing stories that neither shake the earth nor shake the reader, but which are worth telling anyway.
The 200,000-word bulk of Dune is an intimidating mountain to tackle, but the reward is palpable in only the first few pages. An excellent example of the fairytale set in space, and remarkable in its pacing and its rich attention to detail. Frank Herbert does not allow himself to luxuriate in his own cleverness, the way some writers do when they become enamoured of their creations (even justifiably). He moves lightly and patiently through the immense landscape of Arrakis, and is willing to plant seeds and allow them to grow to maturity in his readers before bringing them to fruition tens of chapters later.
There are clear moments where it becomes noticeable that he is deliberately hanging Chekhov’s proverbial gun over a mantelpiece; slowly and painstakingly sketching out a scenario and storing it for a hundred pages hence. There are times when Frank Herbert errs on the heavier side of exposition (although generally carried in dialogue which is a delight to read). These moments remind his reader that they are on the cusp of delving into something at once massive and intricate. They are distractions, but are neither heavy enough nor frequent enough to become a constant annoyance. Rather, there are times when the reader will see them as a friendly helping hand halfway up an otherwise forbidding cliff.
Unsurprisingly for a fairytale, Herbert’s characters are familiar things, from the noble father to the rogueish sidekicks; from the prodigious youth to the demoniacal and grotesque villain. Thankfully Herbert is an able enough storyteller to mould real flesh onto these well-used skeletons, and even add some unexpected depth to some. There is some real pleasure in revisiting an old trope in literature, and finding it expertly polished and cleverly deployed. Herbert shines, therefore, not in coming up with something so startlingly original, but in retelling an old story of long ago and far away in a manner so skilled that the reader forgets he knows exactly what is coming; forgets he knows to expect neither treason from the heroes nor contrition from the villains; forgets he is reading hundreds of thousands of words, and a monstrous amount of geographical and historical backstory. Forgets everything, in fact, but Dune.