The Fourth K, by Mario Puzo

February 8, 2014 at 17:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )

FourthK

1/10

1/10

Frightful. This hyperactive and blindly fumbling mess begins by dragging its feet before proving there are other, and more painful, things to drag. A hallowed master of the crime genre demonstrates with fitful incompetence everything that is wrong with the modern political thriller. If it were not painfully obvious how out of his depth Puzo is, and how desperately he is trying to cobble a story together out of a heap of misshapen jetsam, it might be plausible to regard this utter wreck as misplaced satire: a cracked and absurd lampoon of airport adventure novels. The simple fact is, The Fourth K is worse than any pulp novel one might snatch up at random from a supermarket shelf.

“On the balcony the body of the Pope seemed to rise up off the ground, the white skullcap flew into the air, swirled in the violent winds of compressed air and then drifted down into the crowd…”

-The Fourth K

The question that must be asked is not ‘what is so bad about this book’, but ‘which straw is that fatal addition that breaks the camel’s back?’ Sadly (for nobody should glory in the public failure of a gifted man) the answer is that an autopsy would find this camel to have multiple greivous fractures, all throughout its shattered body. The man who once offered us Vito Corleone seems to have forgotten how to write a character. The titular President Kennedy is a hollow and inconsistent wreck, and it becomes plain only a short way into the book that the author himself is trying with increasing urgency to find a way into his character, glancing quickly at him through an array of different perspectives and supporting characters as if to find some point of view that makes him interesting, original, or even believable.

Two other grotesques leer above the slipshod writing, the hackneyed metaphors and the tersely uninspired dialogue to smear their foul taste across this book’s hideous carapace. The first is Puzo’s maddening habit of introducing a character marked clearly for death, and simpering on for a few pages about this nonentity’s history, or hopes and dreams, or particular foibles–before killing him or her, as any but a dullard must know he would. This is insulting to the reader. It’s a waste of time, and it’s openly manipulative. It’s a padding technique used by the very worst novice writers to inject sterile empathy into the last dying embers of a failing book. For shame, Mario. You’re better than this.

The second is the entirely gratuitous pen which Puzo uses to dribble sordid and graphic accounts of entirely insignificant characters’ intimate exploits over soiled pages. The flimsy argument that these scenes might be important for the development of certain characters  does not even hold the usual trickle of water here, as these recurring scenes are never relevant to either the twisted, ugly plot; or to the pace of the book; or to the understanding of the characters themselves. They are paltry attempts at titillation, and they succeed only in darkening and souring the tone of the book, and in derailing further the mad, mad aberrance that might by some charitable stretch of the imagination be called a storyline. This is a dreadful, sad excuse for a book.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

December 22, 2013 at 18:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

HoundOfTheBaskervilles

3/10

3/10

It was a little surprising (and honestly, disconcerting) to find that not only did Holmes’ eternal companion Watson provide the voice for this mystery, but also most of the legwork. The conceit of a narrative through a letter can be done well, but it can also be done poorly. In The Hound of the Baskervilles it certainly feels like laziness.

A second and deeper problem with this mystery is the straightforwardness of it all. The method and the killer are made plain halfway through, with the rest of the book merely a sweeping-up exercise: the setting of a trap, and the successful conclusion of all ventured by the intrepid detective. Characters are brought in as literary devices and plot shortcuts rather than as meaningful components of a whole, and once their part in the play is concluded they are swept away, never to be heard from again.

“‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.'”

-The Hound of the Baskervilles

Doyle’s writing is excellent, but readers might well be forgiven for imagining that writing in the persona of a rather self-satisfied and coddled English gentleman making reports and penning florid missives would not come with too great a difficulty to this author. This is a fun story to read, but is neither intellectually nor creatively stimulating. There are better mysteries out there, and there are better mysteries to be investigated by Sherlock Holmes. It is telling that the best part of this book, the most interesting part and by far the cleverest–is confined to banter between Sherlock and Watson as they try to guess the identity of a caller at the very beginning of the story. For all the iconic weight that the spectre of this hound has cast upon the body of English literature, once its tracks have been thoroughly traced by the reader its form cannot but come as a disappointment.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

December 15, 2013 at 16:19 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror) (, , , )

TheOceanAtTheEndOfTheLane

8/10

8/10

The harshest and truest criticism that ought to be levelled at this book, is that it is a very good fairy tale. Few recent books can honestly be said to have made no mistakes, no one foot placed wrong; and yet be so palpably missing something. There are really very few causes for complaint. Gaiman is certainly over-fond of commas, and sprinkles them with a vexing prodigality through his book. The story recalls in a dim sort of way the work of Susanna Clarke (which is completely unsurprising, considering the connection between the two authors) but is entirely enterprising and thoroughly original.

It is, as noted above, a very good fairy tale. That ought to be enough, but any reader finishing this story will not be able to escape the feeling that this novel might easily have been seminal. It could have been Gaiman’s best, and the best fantasy in a decade, and a flawless work that would have other writers gnawing their own hair in envy. Instead, it is just very good.

Perhaps this has something to do with its haphazard and unintentional inception. By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel. As it is, it tallies up to be a rather brief novel, and it might be that there are details that could have been eased out onto unspoiled pages, deeper plots, deeper characters, a fuller tale.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

-The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Again, it must be emphasised: this is not a case of a story feeling half-baked, or of questions left unanswered, or of a rushed plot stapled together to meet a publisher’s deadline. This story is complete, and it is very good. Another way of looking at it might be the fierce regimentation of the various adventures and plots in the story. There is the funereal visit at the beginning, for instance. It arrives, there are some pleasing interior monologues, and once that part of the story is over the viewpoint and the flavour shift abruptly. Later, there is the crisis with Ursula and the Roald Dahlian imprisonment within one’s home–which is terrifically written and both thrilling, and tense and suspenseful–which is concluded, resolved, and finished.

Gaiman isolates these separate incidents from each other, and once one crisis or adventure or stream of thought is concluded, it does not really arise again. There is nothing to be said against his narration. His voice is crisp and clean, and it is melancholic without being morbid, youthful without being juvenile, dark without despondence. It seems rather that he might have returned to the draft a few times, and out of the neatly planted and segmented seeds of a story, cultivated a rich and flowing garden of an epic.

This is a story that readers will appreciate and remember, but not for all that long. It is not a story to change lives or inspire deep and permanent longing and wistful love, but it is a story that while it lasts is captivating.

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War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

November 30, 2013 at 10:18 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )

WarAndPeace

6/10

6/10

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.

“The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.”

-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.

“Rostov became thoughtful.
‘I never go back on my word, he said. ‘Besides, Sonya is so charming that only a fool would renounce such happiness.'”

-War and Peace

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!

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1356, by Bernard Cornwell

November 2, 2013 at 09:48 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , )

1356

8/10

8/10

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.

“…the Black Friar walked north. He was going home, home to the tower. He carried la Malice and the fate of Christendom. And he vanished into the darkness.”

-1356

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.

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The Ordinary Knight and The Invisible Princess, by H.L. Burke

September 8, 2013 at 15:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , )

OrdinaryKnight

7/10

7/10

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.

“‘Percy, I can’t go back. The fairies know how to get through the doors now. The tower isn’t safe anymore…I barely escaped.'”

-The Ordinary Knight

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.

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Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert

August 18, 2013 at 10:38 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , )

DuneMessiah

7/10

7/10

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.

“He reeked of memories that had glimpsed eternity. To see eternity was to be exposed to eternity’s whims, oppressed by endless dimensions. The oracle’s false immortality demanded retribution. Past and future became simultaneous.”

-Dune Messiah

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.

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The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

May 5, 2013 at 17:51 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

ChildrenOfHurin

9/10

9/10

In examining The Children of Hurin, the first question will be, “Is it any good?” while the second question will be, “Is there anything new or unique here?”

The answer to both of these questions is not all that simple. The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion from which this story is assembled are both notorious for being difficult and labyrinthine tomes reserved exclusively for people who don’t get invited to parties. They are both very, very good, which answers the first question somewhat. Any reader who has gone through either one of those books will not find anything particularly surprising in The Children of Hurin, which answers the second question.

But there is something very valuable and very new in these pages. Christopher Tolkien (who edited together these fragments) has long been a target of scornful dismissal by many fans of his father’s work, but it is remarkable how seamlessly he has managed to collate the pieces of Hurin’s tragedy from the disparate sources available to him, and come out with something very much approximating literature.

The grandiose style that has been mistaken for unwieldiness by many readers of Tolkien’s miscellaney has been sanded and polished, and in the process of cutting Hurin’s family out from their tangled web of thousands of years of history there is much that has been either abbreviated or removed entirely. In fact, the peculiar thing about this book is that the very act of making it ‘more readable’ and ‘more accessible’ has in fact denuded it of helpful context for many readers unaware of the arcane details of Tolkien’s legends. Those deeply intimate with the history of the Noldor and Thangorodrim will find a clear and thrilling edition of a familiar story; those who have only read The Lord of the Rings will still be faced with the constant stumbling blocks of how this story fits in with the world they know. It is therefore interesting that the simplification of the books has consequently made the story more inviting for those who are already comfortable with the original versions.

“‘The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair.'”

-The Children of Hurin

The most noticeable artefact from The Silmarillion stylistically speaking, is the rather grim absence of levity or mirth. This is a much harder story than Tolkien’s more famous works, and while that does not make it worse at all, it does make it different, and it will doubtless unsettle many readers. This setting also allowed Tolkien to explore more adult themes, and his characters here are much more driven by fear and by jealousy, by pride and by vengeance and by honour. Turin and Morwen, Beleg and Glaurung, are much more human and much less fantastical than the array of hobbits and men seen elsewhere; which is again a comment, and neither criticism nor praise. There is some difficulty in finding the focus of the story–for the grand millennial struggle against Morgoth is a background theme, and incidental to the plot. But in that, the smaller details and choices assume a wider significance than in the original editions, and a warmth which is difficult to set upon initially is brought out.

It is incredibly difficult to consider this book apart from the other forms in which it has already been published. Most readers who come across it will come across it because of their admiration for these other works. But those others who will have to painstakingly arrange the context (or do away with it entirely) will find a bitter but enticing fantasy story, expertly written and without any of the baggy and painful luggage that so much modern fantasy is encumbered with. Surprisingly satisfying to read, and one that even committed Tolkien-devotees might find themselves reaching for more often than they think.

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The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

April 20, 2013 at 22:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )

DifferenceEngine

3/10

3/10

This is not a good book. The authors might have encyclopaedic knowledge of all there is to know about early Victorian England, but that evidently does not qualify them to write about it. In fact, the overwhelming impression a reader will be smothered with is that the pages are crammed with lists, compendia, tallies—endless nattering and gibbering—put down anything on the page, anything! So long as it looks period-authentic, and so long as it sounds old-timey, and so long as it’s got something to do with steam or antiques.

This book is packed to the gills with the sort of rubbish one might expect from people who think everything in the Middle Ages was “Olde”, and who imagine peasants to have spent their days doest-thou-ing and verilying. A lot of style over substance, but a mongrel, desperate sort of style. One only has to read Dickens or Melville or Stevenson or even Austen to realise that even in the olden days, people did not speak how Gibson and Sterling’s horrid pantomime mockneys and lords speak.

“Still, she did have some things she was ‘specially fond of, and these went, along with the undergarments, into her brocade portmanteau with the split seam she’d meant to mend. There was a lovely bottle of rose-scented Portland water, half-full, a green paste brooch from Mr. Kingsley, a set of hairbrushes with imitation ebony backs, a miniature flower-press with a souvenir view of Kensington Palace, and a patent German curling-iron she’d nicked from a hair-dresser’s. She added a bone-handled tooth-brush and a tin of camphorated dentrifice.”

-The Difference Engine

An unforgiveable sin in literature is an author’s laziness. In The Difference Engine another sin is laid bare: the sin of trying much too hard.

Quite besides the stylistic failings that make this book so painful and embarrassing to read, is the terrible state that the actual story itself tangles into. Absolutely nothing of any significance takes place within the first fifty or sixty pages. While a decent head of steam is built up shortly thereafter with a mystery to solve and protagonists and villains nicely lined up, the authors then make the inexplicable decision to bring everything to a screeching halt, and proceed with an entirely new tangentially-related plot. To crown the entire mess, the story finishes about a hundred pages before the book actually ends. The mystery is wound up, the villains despatched, the heroes safely accounted for…and the silly thing plods on, like a lumbering beast mortally wounded, yet too stupid to succumb.

Entire subplots are woven into this book for no satisfactory reason, other than to showcase things. Elsewhere in this review site, it has been mentioned that authors of alternate histories fall so much in love with their own cleverness and adroit reconfiguration of history, that the tail begins to wag the dog, and any pretense of telling a good story utterly vanishes. The Difference Engine does not make it quite so far, but not for lack of trying. There are artefacts and truncated plot lines and characters littered like dross through the book. Pages at a time could be cut out without consequence, because they introduce ideas or characters with no bearing whatsoever on the story.

Any author might be excused for mentioning unrelated details offhand. Tension must be built, scenes must be set, characters must be developed. Shakespeare had his gravediggers, Hugo his Waterloo. But Gibson and Sterling suffer from a rather catastrophic collaboration of crises: their asides are frequently more interesting that the fifty pages of dead space that precede them; their insignificant intrusions come typically just as tension has finally reached some paltry critical mass, and stifle any chance of a revival of the story; their tangents introduce questions that are unanswered, clues that go unsolved, promises that are not kept. Frankly, they are an annoyance that this weak book cannot afford, and ought to have been edited out at the first draft.

There are occasional sparks of light, though they often serve to illuminate only the shoddy work surrounding them. For those interested in the bric-a-brac of a time gone by, Gibson and Sterling provide a rich table. The adjective “rich” could here describe a banquet, a bank account, or an overpowering odour, and its richness will be of limited interest to most readers. There are the buried germs of an interesting (though not brilliant) sort of Victorian thriller; perhaps a facsimile of one of the Penny Dreadfuls that they make sure to reference a few times, so that their readers know they’re really getting authenticity. The only remaining virtue of this book is its honest conjecture on an age of mechanical computing, and some geopolitical, scientific, and sometimes jocular ruminations on the world that Babbage and his ilk might have made. It seems that it was this core around which an unprofessional and unlovely story was wrapped. Unwrapping it might not be wise.

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Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

March 31, 2013 at 17:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )

5/10

This book was a difficult one to rate. Ultimately, it was more exciting and action-packed than either of its predacessors. Unfortunately, even well-written action and adventure cannot compensate for a poor story, and in spite of a fast pace and some magnificent set-pieces, it was simply not as good.

There are some books that fall apart on one terrible issue that the author cannot get his head around: a devastatingly anticlimactic ending, or a limp and flat character inexplicably placed in the centre of everything. But Peter and the Secret of Rundoon dies a death of a thousand pinpricks. Popped seams and stretched plausibility from the earlier books — repairable mistakes left for a moment too long — combine to create an ultimately negative impression. Errors that ought to have been corrected by now, by a competent editor at least–or by an excellent writer–finally come of age and somewhat capsize this venture.

“The figure stepped into the torchlight. Again Molly fought back a scream. A long black moustache slashed across a familiar hatchet-thin face.
Hook!

-Peter and the Secret of Rundoon

Molly has always been rather desperately pushed forward by the authors as a strong female character, usually comedically contrasted with Tinkerbell’s jealous sniping and grousing. She has never been a tiresome nag or a helpless idiot, but the feeling has always hung heavy that Tinkerbell is actually right, and that all of the jokes have contained a serious edge. Molly has several very uncomfortable and grown-up fights with several of the characters at a couple of different points, and this does an enormous amount of damage to the painstakingly cultivated character that Barry and Pearson nurtured over two other books.

The decision is finally made for the ghastly and mysterious Lord Ombra to come clean about his origins and his goals: which ultimately proves to be a disastrous choice. There is a bleak and surprisingly atheistic rant that comes out of nowhere, and the villains become considerably more prosaic and less impressive as a result. Indeed, the story loses much of the magic and fairytale beauty that it had managed to create in a surprisingly short time. Coupled with some bewilderingly anachronistic inventions that are shoehorned into the story seemingly to lazily patch plot holes, and any reader might be forgiven for wondering if the burst of enthusiasm with which this series began, has…run out of pixie dust?

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