Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Wolves of the Northern Rift by Jon Messenger book review

Wolves of the Northern Rift (Magic & Machinery, #1)Wolves of the Northern Rift by Jon Messenger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wolves of the Northern Rift follows Inquisitor Simon and his aide, Luthor the apothecary, as they pursue rumours of magical and supernatural beings that have begun appearing after the Rift opened. Werewolves have been reported attacking a frozen hamlet on the outskirts of civilisation, but what they find might not be the normal hoax they've become used to.

This is a very quick and simple read with a fairly obvious plot; an intriguing story-line that is sadly let down by rather atrocious writing. Billed as steampunk, the only steampunk things we encounter are a pocket watch (standard) and a zeppelin. Aside from that, it is purely a supernatural fantasy novel with sci-fi elements.

The characters are decidedly two-dimensional and really lacking in all areas. There's really nothing to choose between them all and they're inter-changeable at any given moment. All female characters are there to either look pretty, say stupid things or be romantic possibilities for the men.

The humour and dialogue were the worst parts of this book: the humour was so forced and lacking that it was almost funny with how pathetic it really was. The dialogue was some of the worst I've read in a long while: everything was a cliché, everything was attempted humour. It felt so childish and unreal throughout.

The setting is fairly ambiguous, as well, as we never really get a sense other than it's bloody freezing here in this frozen wasteland and it's hardly explored. The book itself is full of The-Gun-That-I-Have-In-My-Right-Hand-Is-Loaded kind of obviousness that continually frustrates you as you read, and clichés are abound. There is a writing rule that runs along the lines of "show don't tell" and sadly everything was trying to be shown and not told that it was all completely forced to the point that we are shown everything, and it is pushed up to our eyes so that we don't miss it completely. I will say that the writing improved slightly as the novel went along, but not enough for it to warrant more than a comment.

It is fine if you're after something incredibly quick and simple to read, though if you're hankering after some steampunk I would give this a relatively wide berth. It's nothing to shout about, but it is a round peg that fits nicely in to the round peg of generic fiction for the masses. I won't be reading the rest of the series as there really wasn't much to hold on to, either.

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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells book review

The War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read as part of The Infinite Variety Reading Challenge, based on the BBC's Big Read Poll of 2003.

The War of the Worlds goes beyond the of-the-time popular military invasion fiction, which took away the standard protagonist/antagonist arc of single characters and popped whole countries or tribes in their place, and brings down to Earth a whole new enemy at a time when science fiction did not exist and science itself was oft thought of as fiction.

In Surrey, a professor is caught up in the invasion of Martians as they sweep through London and its surrounding boroughs after witnessing several explosion on the planet Mars at the Ottershaw observatory. We follow the un-named professor and his brother in first-person narrative, seeing through their eyes this invasion and the destruction caused.

The air was full of sound, a deafening and confusing conflict of noises-the clangorous din of the Martians, the crash of falling houses, the thud of trees, fences, sheds flashing into flame, and the crackling and roaring of fire. Dense black smoke was leaping up to mingle with the steam from the river, and as the Heat-Ray went to and fro over Weybridge its impact was marked by flashes of incandescent white, that gave place at once to a smoky dance of lurid flames.

The first thing one needs to reference is the radio adaptation of 1938, which was narrated by Orson Welles and caused panic due to its news-bulletin style: those listening thought it was the truth. Whilst reading the novel, there is no doubt that the imagery, style and prose of H.G. Wells purported this panic. It is written with such imagination that it's difficult not to imagine oneself standing on the side of a crater as Martians crawl sluggishly out of their spaceships.

It is not often that I can forgive a book its downfalls due to the time of its writing. (It's all very well to accept that, for the most part, racism and sexism and things of that ilk were at many times in history acceptable behaviour, but enjoying a book from a period with those things in this day and age is a thing I find difficult to do.) However, in the case of The War of the Worlds I think it is vitally important to read the book with the exact time and place it was written in history to be lodged within your mind alongside every word you read.

We have a primitive form of speculative fiction, the very foundations of what we now call science fiction. At the time, H.G. Wells was writing fiction that had scientific and imaginative leanings, but no-one would dare think that perhaps the fiction was not quite fiction after all. There is little mention of the Martians weaponry or technology except when it is in use: any modern-day writer of sci-fi would absolutely be telling you all about the nuts and bolts of the piece. We have primitive science, because that is what they had at the time of writing. Whilst the future may have been thought of, the idea of futuristic technology was as alien to them as the Martians and their technology are in the book.

So, the excitement of the scientific exploration of futures is not to be found here. But the imagination of Wells is so beyond almost everything else that was around at the time and coupling it with popular militarist fiction means that this is an extremely important novel in the progression of English fiction. It is not surprising that Wells was, like Darwin himself, stuck inextricably between the truth of science and the tradition of religion.

The story itself, if put in perspective-removed from its time period and thought of solely as a novel-is nothing special. The narrator is disjointed with his surroundings, the story disappointing in the way it ends and less dramatic and climactic than it could have been. The style of prose is lacking, the dialogue just standard and the characters just slight breezes on a warm day. In that, it would require a mere two or three stars: enjoyable, if a little boring. But this is a novel that should be remembered for when it was written.

The imagination of a scientific man who is at odds with what is right and wrong. The spectacular birth of a new genre of, not only writing, but of thinking, too. The fact that even though my oestrogen levels were almost at zero, the reunion at the end made me cry my eyes out because it was written so perfectly, so unexpectedly.

Of course, that film with that actor was better. Of course it was. We have perspective and technology now that means the original The War of the Worlds is pretty pathetic. It cannot possibly compete with our high standards of today, unless you have half a brain and take this novel for what it truly represents. Unless.

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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Forty Years On by Alan Bennett book review

Forty Years OnForty Years On by Alan Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year. We have become a battery people, a people of underprivileged hearts fed on pap in darkness, bred out of all taste and season to savour the shoddy splendours of the new civility. The hedges come down from the silent fields. The lease is out on the corner site. A butterfly is an event.

Forty Years On was Alan Bennett's very first West End Play, set in the fictional Public School Albion House. The school is putting on an end-of-year play for the parents, which brings forth the medium of having a play-within-a-play. The within-play sees three people living through the World War, whereas the without-play sees the Public School boys and masters try and enact this play, with many interruptions and discourses.

It also sees the old fashioned, last generation Headmaster make way for the new Headmaster who appears to have ways that break and denounce tradition, which reflects the transition of the old Empire Britain in to the new, World-Wars surviving Britain. A changed Britain: a modern Britain, but at what cost? And at what cost to education are new ideas and old traditions brought in and taken away?

You can tell this is one of Bennett's earlier plays because the humour isn't as sharp and quite often there are some very blunt moments, and the whole story itself seems to stutter ever so slightly. The play-within-the-play is a narration of Great Britain as it goes through the changes of coming out of being an excellent empire, through two world wars and falling in a heap out of the other side.

We have Bennett's natural talent speaking for itself, for the most part. There are some very obvious jokes and some you must roll your eyes at, but the humour is both English and Bennett and nothing is better. I find it hard to rate plays, because they include none of the things I love about reading: description, character and world-building, and I need to see a play in order to really rate it, but Forty Years On spoke to me on a level that not many books can do.

"The Battle of Britain was 23 years ago and the world has forgotten it. Those young men, so many of whom I knew, flew up in to the air and died for us and all we believed in and all we believe in has so changed that they needn't have really died at all. It was all a nonsense." - Noël Coward

Great Britain has never known what to do with itself ever since the Empire was dissolved. How can a country even get over something like that, without having been defeated or invaded to the point of changing its identity completely?

This is what Alan Bennett is saying, though being a young playwright he only scratches the surface of it. Forty Years after the war-any war-and it seems as if it mightn't have happened at all, for all the good it seems to have done us. Time moves on a things that happen were only things that happened: things to be discussed.

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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski book review

The Tower of the Swallow (The Witcher, #6)The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This review can be found on Amaranthine Reads.

The Witcher series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski continues, with the Child Surprise Ciri travelling around with a bunch of thieves and bandits called the Rats, whilst Geralt, sorcerers and the Emperor send out people to find her.

This series has plummeted to the very depths of tedium. Every book has melded in to one and it's difficult for me to remember this particular one, though I do recall my consternation at the random change of narrative style. Geralt is still not doing any Witchering, there is still monumental bitching between all the female characters and the dialogue is still pitiful.

I complained during a review of an earlier book in this series that we rarely had other points of view during the narration, which seemed to slow down the entire thing. This book rectifies that, but in such a way that it may as well have not happened. We have around five POVs during any given chapter, which confuses things incredibly and don't actually improve the plot or pace of the action. We also, for some reason, begin to get excerpts from Dandelion's little memoirs, which add nothing to the plot except a general feel that perhaps this is something Sapkowski should maybe try out because it's cool, yo.

The plot is also the same as it was in the previous three books. This series, a five book series discounting the first two short story collections, is definitely two books too long and probably four books too long. Everything seems to take around two chapters to tell. A journey that could be told in one sentence ends up taking approximately half the book and we are left wondering why. Nothing particularly exciting happens during these journeys, except meeting new characters that add nothing to the story because the characters we already know are weak and two dimensional. Their interaction is always so false and incredibly immature.

Speaking of the characters, the protagonists known as Geralt and Ciri have become cantankerous and pathetic. They whinge and moan and act like little children not getting their own way. And yet no-one minds because one is a part of a prophecy and the other characters are all in love with the other. It is as if nothing can touch them-which is apparently the case since they elude capture, maiming and death numerous times through no reason other than they must to keep the story going.

There is also far, far, far too many mentions of genitals. I have never read a book that is so obsessed with genitals and sex. I'm sure HBO would love to turn this in to a TV series-and a successful one at that-due to the sheer amount of tits and sex. Someone is either aiming to stab someone else in the penis or a man is wanting to shove his penis in a woman's vagina. This is basically all that happens, with some killing in between.

And there is still endless bitching between the female characters. I'm not sure there is a single woman who have anything nice to say about another woman, except Ciri but she's basically just a child anyway. And all women love all children. It's a fact.

I don't know why I felt the need to finish this series. There is one book to go after this and whilst I found this particular instalment as boring as any book can be, I find I've invested so much I need to know. Belzebub knows I will be disappointed: I can feel it with this book as the plot meanders, the characters flatten out even more and the dialogue improves by a hair's breadth. It is my own fault for wasting my own time.

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski book review

Baptism of Fire (The Witcher, #5)Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

We come to book three of the Witcher series, or book five if you're counting the first two collections of short stories. Whichever way you want to look at it, Baptism of Fire is the same dull book as it would be in any order.

The series continues with Geralt the Witcher searching the land for the Child Surprise, Ciri. The war rages on around them and it seems every faction is on the look out for Ciri, too. But Geralt is injured and the sorcerers are in disarray, whilst the enemy approaches ever closer...

Let's first of all take a little look at the title of the series: Witcher. One would hope that this meant that the book would be about Geralt, who is THE Witcher, and of course, it is about him. In a roundabout way. But unfortunately, it is about him in the sense that today is about you. There's barely any Witcher-ing going on (a Witcher being someone who is paid to kill monsters) and the only Witcher-y things that happen are the countless pirouettes that occur during a sword fight.

Taking the characters as a whole, they're all still similar, juvenile and can't speak for toffee. Their dialogue has stopped being all about whores and sluts, and yet it is still the speak of simpletons. We get endless conversations that should be propelling the plot along but ends up being mindless drivel. The characters themselves don't notice this, nor do they seemingly notice anything else that's happening around them. When we focus on a certain character, the rest of the world just stops: or so it seems.

I feel I can't comment on the writing, not only because it's a translation (though I know a translation can only work with what it's given) but because I think the version I read was a fan-generated ebook of terrible writing and horrible grammar. Having said that, you cannot make good what was already poor to begin with-or indeed, you can't polish a turd.

Going back to the plot, it is dry and underdone. We only really have one plot thread running throughout, and that is Ciri. Whilst we are now getting POV from many different characters and we are encountering the different races and peoples that inhabit this Witcher world, we are still not getting much in the way of plot. There are minor conspiracies dashed about, but ultimately all it boils down to is Geralt's need to find Ciri. And even once we know that, we don't even know why. There are countless times when we are told of prophecies and plans, but nothing substantial stands out. It's mostly conjecture and it's as if the author didn't necessarily have much of a plot in mind from the beginning anyway.

My main consternation for this series, however, is the true lack of originality and imagination. We have here just a generic, every-day kind of fantasy novel. Which you could say is fine, because if fantasy is what you like, then this'll be right up your street if you're not looking for anything challenging or something that is truly breath-taking and different.

But when you consider what Sapkowski wrote in The Last Wish you'd be easily forgiven for hoping that these books might be better. The Last Wish intertwined fairytale re-tellings with political intrigue and we had a great and original character in Geralt the Witcher. But with these books we have none of that. We simply have flat storytelling, pointless plots and some very lacking characters.

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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski book review

The Time of Contempt (The Witcher, #4)The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am odds with this series. The Last Wish is a million miles away from what these have become, which is just generic fantasy that is badly written (or translated). In The Last Wish we have good battles with monsters, re-tellings of our own fairytales and interesting characters. In this series, which is made up of what are supposed to be full-length books, we have absolutely none of that and it's very disappointing.

The dialogue is the worst thing of all. There is an abysmal attempt at humour, and an attempt to make the characters-I suppose-"normal", or at least, not speaking in thees and thous. However, it goes too far and all the characters speak the same, swear the same, call every woman a slut the same and are just dull and ridiculous both. I don't know if it's the translation, the transcription or the original author, but a translator can only do so much with what they're given.

Beyond the dialogue, everything is is pretty much just generic fantasy with battles, swords, magic and men calling all females sluts or bitches. There is a small attempt to make interesting female characters, but just giving them magical powers doesn't do that. All the female characters are at odds with each other, bitching about them behind their backs, wanting their men, talking about men, doing nothing but bitching or talking about men. There is a wonderful opportunity here to make excellent female characters with power, working together, being helpful to each other, being friends, being wonderful. But no. They just bitch or get their tits out. It's getting old.

Of course, there is another female character who does none of these. Ciri. The most important character of all, (view spoiler)

There is also little or no need for Geralt to be in these books. It's supposedly about a Witcher, but I don't recall there being much Witchering going on. Geralt fights with around two monsters and gets paid for none of them. Instead, he kills humans and gets told off for doing so. There are elements of trying to philosophise about the Witcher profession and killing monsters in general, but it is lost in the deluge of mediocre writing.

However, to give the book a little credit, we do have a better omniscient narration here. We see the story through many different eyes and not just main characters, which is one of the best things about reading fantasy. We travel to different lands, as well, and experience them with the characters, so with these things this series has come on leaps and bounds because the last book was absolutely dire with those things. So hey-ho, can't have everything, can we? That'd be silly. That'd be a good, worthwhile book and apparently those don't exist.

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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski book review

Blood of Elves (The Witcher, #3)Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Considering how well-written and quick-paced the short story prequel collection The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski was, this was ridiculously disappointing and underwhelming. We have the same characters as was to be found in The Last Wish, and we had their personalities expanded and explored further, but we had none of the excitement or fantasy that was found there.

Blood of Elves is very slow and very closed-off. We spend far too much time in one place alone, and we follow conversations at a snail's pace to the point where what they're saying is no longer important but pointless chit-chat. It takes over half the book for us to leave Geralt and Ciri, who have taken up most of the book doing pretty much nothing in one place. The narrator is supposed to be omniscient, but it feels more like first-person narrative with just one or two dips elsewhere to move the rather vague plot along.

It's such a huge disappointment because the inclusion of our own folklore and fairytales in The Last Wish was a very good idea and following Geralt as he went about the countryside tackling monsters and demons (which is the job of the Witcher) was exciting, refreshing and kept the stories moving along. In Blood of Elves we meet one monster and little else.

It is mostly full of political intrigue, none of which is that interesting, nor does it deviate from the generic fantasy trope of races warring with races, crossing borders and sacking cities. But even then, with the generic fantasy tropes, we barely even get in to them because the characters are too busy having inane conversations whilst, presumably, just standing about being targets.

There was, however, a better set of female characters in this, though it was a bit too James Bond-esque how they all seemingly dropped their knickers are the mere sight of Geralt of Rivia. If one can get past this obvious High Fantasy trope and author-projection, we see some female characters that are developed beyond their breasts, but only just.

It's a relatively fun fantasy day-out. A quick read, won't challenge you much and will give you a good dose of non-YA fantasy goodness if that's what you're looking for (it's why I gravitated toward it) but it is by no means anything brilliant or ground-breaking. I will, however, finish the series, maybe pick up the other short story collection I haven't gotten around to and possibly play the game that was inspired by it.

(It's worth pointing out that this book is the first of a series, despite GoodReads naming it the third. This book is the first full-length novel and makes up the trilogy, with two anthologies of short stories taking up 1st and 2nd in the series.)

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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski book review

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I used to read pretty much nothing but High Fantasy, with a dash of Dickens here and there, and the occasional other classic, but High Fantasy was where I mostly lived. Deciding that there was more to reading than High Fantasy (which I absolutely and truly believe) I moved away and left it alone for a little while. Magician was really the first book I read that broke the High Fantasy drought, but it wasn't very good and I was disappointed. But it did make me hunger for some fantasy again...

And so we come to The Last Wish. It being one of the 1100+ books on my kindle, I didn't go out of my way to read a blurb or find out what it was about. All I did was find out which book in The Witcher series was the first book and started on it.

It was confusing at first, as very well it should be. The Last Wish is a collection of short stories that are set in the world of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia and they follow his trials, from battling monsters to falling in love. I went in thinking it was the first book of a series-a general High Fantasy Trilogy that are so prevalent in that genre. That was wrong and it knocked me off my stride. But once you figure that out, you find yourself reading something pretty special.

The writing was pretty good, though how much of that is original author and how much is translation is something I don't wish to get in to. The action was fast, the pacing was good even for short stories. I dislike short stories as a rule but still read them if I don't have a solid reason not to. These short stories are different in that there is one story that runs throughout and the rest act as flashbacks.

The mingling effect of having re-written well-known fairy tales from our own world was really effective and very enjoyable. It was fun to see these stories almost set in a time and place where they actually belong-a world that has actual magic and monster, as opposed to our world where these things are only metaphors. It was fun to see how these tales were mingled, twisted and done and they were done really well, but they weren't really changed in to anything that very different and that let it down a little.

The humour was often times lacking and felt forced most of the time. I enjoy humour in what would be considered as serious books, but it wasn't particularly great here. I'd describe it as generic fantasy humour. I also thought the dialogue was fairly pathetic in most cases and let the stories as a whole down. Whilst I like people to speak normally instead of "thee" and "thou", this went too far and each character was a potty-mouthed arsehole most of the time.

And finally, to keep this short (it's getting longer than I intended it to be) I'd like to re-iterate some things. These stories are probably more of a 4-5 star read for what they are. High Fantasy, sword slashing, myths, magic and Mordor. They're fun and just what Fantasy is perceived to be. But for me, and why they're only 3 star, is that they only conform to the standards of High Fantasy and aren't breaking the mould. There's a minimal effort to create really good female characters. Having one female character who is in charge of her own destiny isn't good enough, particularly considering she's used magic to make herself "beautiful" and ends up being just a Vagina in the end anyway. The other women are mostly naked, whores, or victims, or mysteriously beautiful beings with magic powers but little else. Or old wise women who just sit and be wise. Magic powers and wisdom alone does not make a strong, interesting character. Strong, interesting characters do not need only be the protagonists.

And, similarly, male characters who are solely obsessed with tits and big swords is getting a little old, too.

For me, I need to see more progress made in this area. Sure, that might not be why you read High Fantasy and for you this book will probably be 4, no, 5 stars. But I realised how much I loved High Fantasy, and how much I still love it, and I want to see it change for the better and the only way to do that is by expressing my own opinion only and not letting populism get in the way.

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