Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Author: Susanna Clarke

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Length: 948 pages, 308,931 words

Read: August 20 – September 10, 2011

Summary: Really good, really unusual book

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This is one of the best and most unusual books I’ve read in a while, although it’s not for everyone. As you can see it’s quite a tome, clocking in at 308,000 words! It’s set mostly in England during the Napoleonic Wars (first 15 years of the 1800s for historical dolts). It’s also written in a very clever approximation of early 19th century British prose. Think of it as Dickens or Vanity Fair with magic. Actually it’s a little earlier than either of those, but still.

This is not your typical modern novel. It doesn’t have a lot of action. It’s stylistic and archaic voice mostly “tells” (as in “show don’t tell”). But the voice is great, if you like that sort of thing (I did). It’s wry and very amusing, with a defined narrative tone. The voice gives the who book a kind of wry feel, as if we (the reader) are in on something.

It’s also a very character driven story. This is the tale of two magicians, the only two “practical” (i.e. real) magicians to surface in England for some centuries. It’s to a large extent about their quirks and their relationship. There isn’t a ton of action, although there is plenty of magic. There are copious and lengthy asides. Every chapter has several pages of footnotes on magical history! You can skip/skim these if you like.

The historical feel is really good. Most of the characters are “gentlemen” or their servants so their’s is a particular rarified world of the early 19th century British aristocracy. I know quite a bit about this era and it felt pretty characteristic. The Napoleonic Wars are well researched, but they aren’t front and center, serving more as a backdrop. This all has a very British slant to it, which is accurate from the British perspective. I.e. Napoleon is a bit of a bogey man. While the British felt this way, it was mostly propaganda. I’m actually a pretty big Bonaparte fan — he did a lot to shake up and form the modern era — even if he was a “tad” aggressive. The 19th century British Empire was itself staggeringly arrogant and well… imperialistic. But anyway…

I also liked the way the book handles issues of enchantment and perception. This is a very fairy oriented magic — as is appropriate to a historically based English Magic — and it’s treated deftly with a strong sense of the fey. Many of the characters are under strong enchantments, preventing them for hundreds of pages from realizing something which seems rather obvious to us readers. This is both fun and frustrating.

If the book has any problems (besides being a bit long) it’s that the end isn’t entirely satisfying. Things are not really explained to either the characters or the readers. They are wrapped up, but not clarified. So I had the feeling of a grand build up without appropriate payoff. But I did enjoy the journey. This is clearly one of those huge first novels that was like 10 years in the crafting — making it unlikely the author will every exactly repeat the phenomenon.

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A Dance With Dragons

Title: A Dance With Dragons

Author: George R. R. Martin

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Length: 959 pages, circa 400,000 words

Read: July 12-23, 2011

Summary: Awesome, but not without issues.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

My charge through book 5 of Martin’s epic fantasy series was a bit drawn out by my need to concentrate on the second draft of my new novel Untimed, but I finally finished. Before I launch in, it should be noted that this review is full of spoilers.

Dance is huge, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages. This itself is actually a welcome and comforting fact because these books are something to savor. Overall, I would rate this volume as better than A Feast of Crows and slightly worse than the first three. Still, it’s a fantastic book. Prose-wise, Martin is still a master at both people, places, plotting and reversals. It’s just that this book suffers from a few pacing and structural issues.

Most of these stem from his controversial decision to pull out half the characters from the bloated manuscript of Feast and push them into Dance by themselves. So the first two thirds of the new book is everyone who didn’t get a turn in Feast. Now, for the most part, this saved the best for last. Dany, Jon, and Tyrion make up the bulk of the book, particularly this first two thirds, and they are some of my favorite characters. But overall this leaves both Feast and Dance feeling a little more threadbare than the first three books. Personally I think he would have been much better off winding out the story chronologically, trimming out some useless threads (Aeron Damphair, Victarion, and probably the Dornes), and rearranging the plot so as to have some kind of sub-climax at the end of each book.

As it is, Dance reads excellently for the first 2/3, feeling fairly focused on its three mains. But it’s weird to rewind in time and revisit certain happenings from Feast from the other side (for example Sam leaving the Wall). When we get to the cut off point, however, some of the characters from Feast start to weave back in. This mostly has the effect of slowing the narrative and making it more diffuse. At least until the set of cliffhangers and deaths that come in the final chapters.

I also think that Martin is letting his pacing slip a bit. It’s not that each chapter isn’t entertaining and well written — they are — but many threads there have multiple chapters where the happenings could’ve been collapsed without loss. If we hadn’t known a few of those details were there, we would never have missed them. Worse than the pacing issues, however, is a weirdly increasing fondness for skipping some of the big moments. Now Martin has always done that (the Red Wedding, the “death” of Bran & Rickon, etc) but it’s worse than ever. He has a real tendency to build slowly toward a big event, then skip the event itself, showing what happened to the characters obliquely through other eyes at a much later point.

I’m going to go through some of my opinions and analysis thread by thread.

Prologue

I don’t really understand why fantasy authors are obsessed with these. It was kind of interesting, but didn’t advance anything.

Jon

His thread is fine (until the end), but it does feel a bit static. While he’s certainly grown into command, he mostly sits back at the wall and fields interference between factions (Stannis, his queen, the Red Priestess, the Wildlings) etc. Then at the end, he mysteriously decides to rush off to Winterfell. This is a move that makes no sense as he has refused to enter into family entanglements about six times before, and while he is goaded, there is really less at stake for him. Then out of nowhere comes a reaction to this decision that leaves us in a bad cliffhanger. Boo.

Tyrion

The Imp is funny as always and now I can hear Peter Dinklage cracking each and every droll line. Still his thread is also a little dragged out, although it does involve some great sightseeing and is certainly entertaining all along. In the first part of the book it feels like he (and everyone else) is heading toward Dany, but then he gets within inches and turns back. Using him to introduce us to Griff and “Young Griff” is however an excellent device and works much better than an extra POV would have. It is mostly through Tyrion and Dany that we get a sense of the complex and old slave societies of the mainland. Unlike Westeros which feels like late Medieval England, these realms feel more like the ancient east (perhaps an updated Babylon vibe).

Dany

Her chapters are mostly political. She does feel a bit passive. I don’t really understand why she doesn’t try to get a handle on her dragons earlier, this is obviously a key move which could trump all of her political problems. Instead she dicks around (literally and figuratively) with various factions. This is all fairly entertaining, but feels like treading water. Then “a big event occurs” (at least this one is on screen) and she rides off on Drogon. That’s all great, but her narrative disappears until the last chapter. When it returns nothing is resolved at all, but a new out of the blue cliffhanger is introduced. I do really like the world of Meereen and the slave cities, although it feels like we are lingering here a bit long.

Barristan

The hero serves to replace Dany as the POV in Meereen. He’s actually a great POV character with all his lingering thoughts about events during and before Robert’s Rebellion. I really enjoyed his chapters. But they didn’t come to any resolution.

Theon

The hier to the seastone chair returns to us, a few bits worse for the wear. I hated Theon in books 2 & 3, but I enjoyed his chapters immensely here. His transformation into Reek and back again is very deftly handled, with a very proper (and sordid) period quality. It isn’t for no reason that Tarantino used the phrase “medieval on his ass” and that is exactly what the Bastard of Bolton has done to Theon. His pseudo redemption is good. Still, we have classic Martin avoidance of the action with the actual escape from Winterfell. In the cut between Theon jumping from the wall into the snows and his delivery to his sister is a big blank. Not that we needed the travel, but whatever battle happened at Winterfell needed some detailing.

Asha

I could have lived without her POV. It mostly serves to fill in some parts of Stannis’s story when he leaves the wall. The technique is sketchy and I ended up having no idea what really happened during his brutal snowy march and the seige of Winterfell. This I thought was the weakest part of the book structurally, as I’m basically confused.

Quentin and the Dornes

Cut! Dull for the most part, except for some info about the cultures they traveled through. I couldn’t have cared less for these characters. The attempt to steal a dragon was interesting, but was also vaguely described. I’m thinking that Martin, for all his brilliance as a character and world builder, isn’t actually the best at action scenes.

The Dorne chapter back in Dorne: It was okay, but we didn’t really need it.

Jaime

This sucked. I like Jaime’s POVs, but this single chapter had a bunch of crap, followed by one of those annoying Martin reveals that just serve to highlight the gap in information. Brienne returns and they ride off. You don’t find out how she escaped her predicament, what she knows, anything. It just kinda sucked. The effect of her cliffhanger was entirely spoiled.

Cersei

These were pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing her get hers. Martin certainly knows how to throw in the creepy little details so your mind fills in the rest.

Victarion

Cut! I could have lived without these, and they basically just told you he was heading off to Dany with a horn and a Red Priest. Although he’s better than his brother — I’d take any chapter over Aeron Damphair.

Arya

These were great. I have no idea where they’re going, but that’s fine. Arya has always been one of my favorites. Give us more. To be honest it felt like these were the chapters that should have gone in Feast and this the conclusion that book should have had for Arya’s thread. Probably that was Martin’s original plan.

Bran

His chapters were good, but so little, and it all felt dropped as his last chapter is about midway in the book.

Davos

I’ve never been a fan. I think we could have just had these told by raven.

Epilogue

This was actually very good, really being a Kevan in King’s Landing chapter in disguise. I loved the return of Varys at the end — particularly his dialog.

Some observations: There is more magic of sorts in this volume. Martin has a real thing for nubile slave girls — but then again, what self respecting fantasist doesn’t? The scope of this book, with it’s gigantic foreign cities reminiscent of the ancient world is going to make for some hard adapting should the TV series get this far. As I noted in my series reviews the show already has problems with handling large scale people scenes. These slave cities and the like will make that even harder. Likewise with the slave sex and slave violence. I’m all over it (in fiction) but some of it will undoubtedly have to be cut/changed. Sigh. I like that Martin at least highlights some of the sad reality of actually being a nubile slave girl.

Overall, Martin’s books are among my all-time favorite novels. I enjoyed the book immensely, and eagerly await the the next volume (and I’m sure I’ll be waiting for a long time), but I can’t help but think it could have been SO much better if Martin had taken all the material in both Feast and Dragons and reedited them together into two chronological and slightly leaned down volumes.

Also check out my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):

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The Big Sleep

Title: The Big Sleep

Author: Raymond Chandler

Genre: Crime Noir

Length: 234 pages

Read: May 27-31, 2011

Summary: Slick and stylish.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Continuing my between the wars “hard-boiled” novel kick, I followed up on The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Maltese Falcon with The Big Sleep.

The novel is very much influenced by Dashiell Hammett‘s classic. It shares the atmospheric quality, complex plot, moral ambiguity, and dark wit.  Stylistically The Big Sleep has slightly more straightforward and less quirky prose. It’s a little more wry, a little less over the top than the earlier novel. Both have extremely compelling voices and stark style. The lean irony of the narrator in the The Maltese Falcon gives way to the dark cynicism of Sleep‘s Marlowe and his first person voice. “If you can weigh one hundred and ninety pounds and look like a fairy, I was doing my best,” is a typical zinger. The dialog is fantastic, although not as oblique and contrary as in Falcon. It’s a little more natural.

Marlowe is more likable and less belligerent than Sam Spade, although they’re both minted from the same cool-cucumber tough guy template. The plot is involved, and to tell the truth even having seen the movie twice, I had no idea until the end what Marlowe was digging at with his investigation of Vivian’s missing husband. Occasionally some bits of action took me for a loop too, requiring that I reread them to find out exactly what happened. But these are minor complaints. The book really is great. Marlowe’s compelling voice pulling you through at breakneck pace. But at the backbone for me was the sinister portrait of pre-war L.A. While visually tame by today’s jaded standards, this is a dark book, with realistic characters. The movie is forced by 40s standards to gloss or smooth over many of these darker elements, but the novel exposes them for what they are.

I do have to say that these hard boiled detectives are awfully confident in their ability to read dangerous situations!

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