Book Reviews

Review: The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

Rather like Pratchett, Gaiman seems to be spending increasing amounts of his time on writing books marketed for children, rather than adults. The Graveyard Book is his most recent foray into children's fiction, and, as the title implies, it owes a conscious debt to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book in its form.
The protagonist is orphaned by a killer in black - the man, Jack - in the opening sequence, escaping death himself by choosing to toddle off and explore outside. Reaching the graveyard at the top of the hill, he is adopted by the ghostly denizens, and the solitary, corporeal (but dislikes the sun, has hypnotic powers, needs his native earth nearby to sleep) Silas. Named "Nobody" (there's a good reason, thematically, why "John Doe" wouldn't have been appropriate), by his adoptive family, each chapter (separated by two years each time) concerns one or more important events in 'Bod's life. The astute reader will have already suspected that each event is pivotal in the climactic confrontation with the agent of his family's death.
If you've read any other Gaiman, the setting will be unsurprising - a general inversion of the horror-tropes of the past (there are night-gaunts, but they're surprisingly helpful, as are the werewolves, vampires and witches we encounter), with even the dangerous things being temptingly drawn (the ghouls, despite their horrific aims, are at least entertainingly spoken). There is nothing evil that shows itself such by horrific appearance, and some things of horrific appearance are actually fairly friendly.
In this, in fact, the Graveyard Book is somewhat more progressive than The Jungle Book was towards animals. The villains of Kipling's work are precisely those animals which one might imagine to be dangerous or "evil" (apart from humanity itself). The villains of Gaiman's book... less so (although the man, Jack's "employers" might be said to stand in for a certain aspect of humanity themselves).
Many people seem to have decided that The Graveyard Book is Gaiman's "best book yet". I'm not sure that it is quite that good, but then I still don't think he's quite surpassed the better parts of Sandman...

Review: Let the Right One In (Movie vs Book, John Ajvide Lindqvist )

The novel of Let The Right One In is both more fantastical and more mundane than the acclaimed film.
In both, the core plot is the growing, uncertain, and complex friendship between the boy, Oskar, and the child, Eli, recently moved into Oskar's area. In both, the man, Håkan, who appears to live with Eli, is killing young people and taking their blood, and has an ambiguous relationship with Eli. In both, Oskar's connection with Eli helps him, ultimately, to fight off his bullies at school, with escalating consequences.
However, the film is a considerable streamlining and simplification of the book. Indeed, at least some of the simplification appears to be an attempt to bowdlerise the original work so that it can be filmed. The film doesn't really make Håkan's relationship with Eli clear - he could be a Renfield, he might be what Oskar would become grown old, he might be a pederast who picked the wrong child to molest. In the book, it is clear that the latter is truly the case, as Håkan is one of our viewpoint characters from the start, consumed with sleazy desires that he'd rather not have, but is too weak to resist. Indeed, part of the book's thesis is the weakness of humans themselves - subplots that are barely touched on in the film fleshs this out, with their litany of flawed, struggling men and women who are let down by their fears or their flaws.
If the film avoids telling us what kind of person Håkan really is, though, it also avoids punishing him in the way the book does - he gets a relatively clean death, in the end, almost romanticised in its replaying of horror tropes. In the book... in the book, he's reduced to, symbolically, merely a shell around the desires he's always hated in himself, and it is possible that his final punishment is neverending "life" in broken body that cannot move or think.
Which brings us to the other major simplification the film makes over the book - the nature of Eli. Oh, Eli is a vampire in both works, although denying the actual term (for good reason, in the novel). What we speak of is Eli's gender. When Eli says to Oskar, in the film, "Would you still like me if I wasn't a girl?", we can interpret this as a warning of hur supernatural nature. The novel isn't so straightforward, making Eli's nature a more problematic, and trauma-laden, question.
Indeed, whilst the film can be read as a sort of ersatz love story between Oskar and Eli, the novel is harder to pin down. That Oskar and Eli escape at the end is perhaps less important than that Oskar learns to strive, and grasp his striving with both hands. Indeed, with the counterpointing of all the other characters, each with their crippling flaw (and the mirroring subplot of the drunkard Lacke's signal failure to do what Oskar succeeds in), the key point of the novel is almost certainly that to live successfully, one must strike out and take the risk of failure, despite everything.

Review: The Prince of Nothing Trilogy (R. Scott Bakker)

In the acknowledgements page at the front of The Darkness That Comes Before, the first book in this trilogy, R. Scott Bakker mentions his debt to both J R R Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) and Frank Herbert (author of Dune). It is, therefore, no surprise that this trilogy (the first, itself, of a trilogy of trilogies currently barely half complete) reads very much like a merging of the two settings, thematically and character-wise.
From Tolkien, we have the sweeping worldbuilding, the past apocalypse returning, the meat and grounding of the setting , from Herbert, the political machination, the concern with the dangerous effect of a messiah-figure on a populace, and, most of all, the influences that form the insular warrior monks called "Dunyain". The Dunyain (and, I assume that the name is deliberately reminiscent of both "Dunedain" and "Dune") have devoted the last two thousand years to perfecting their mental and physical acuity, breeding and training themselves towards the (perhaps unattainable) goal of the "Self-moving soul" - a state of being in which their thoughts are purely their own, with no unconscious influences from outside. In so doing, they have become something like Mentat-Bene Gesserit, combining awesomely honed bodily awareness and perception with acute mental ability and recall. And no-one else in the world remembers that they exist.
Perhaps 20 years before the start of the first novel proper, they sent out one of their number into the world. Being tainted by the outside, he was not allowed to return to spread his taint to the others... but now, somehow, members of the Dunyain are experiencing dreams of him, dreams that their purely mechanistic view of the world cannot explain. So, they send his son, Kellhus, out into the world to deal with this problem (and kill the rest of the dreamers to retain isolation).
The rest of the books follows what happens when a Dunyain enters the world of Earwe, and warps it around himself in order to accomplish his goal. For normal men, not Conditioned by Dunyain training, are in thrall to their emotions, to subconscious reactions to a thousand external influences, to their unexamined beliefs and cultural mores. For a Conditioned Dunyain, they are easy to read, and just as easy to manipulate.
Which leads us to the "problem" which seems to have excited the most debate amongst fans of the books: Is Kellhus a sympathetic character? He is, by breeding and training, something of a cold fish. He never reveals his true thoughts externally, and sees nothing wrong with manipulating everyone around him to do his bidding (as, from his perspective, they were hardly in control of their own actions even without his influence). Some readers see him as an irredeemable sociopath, others as a means whose end (hinted to be pivotal in the larger conflict against the Lurking Nihilist Evil) does precisely that, I suspect that some even see him as a hero - the One Sane Man. Certainly, the comparisons to Paul Atreides are apt, although perhaps Leto II would be a better match (if Kellhus' father, Moengus, is Paul), with the revelations of the later books in mind. (Not that Kellhus has become a giant sandworm, yet.)
Regardless, Kellhus is a problematic protagonist. Presumably, this is why we are treated to at least three other potential protagonists throughout the trilogy - the "barbarian" Cnaiur, who has deep-seated reasons to hate Dunyain after his encounter with Kellhus' father twenty years previously (and yet ends up uneasily reliant on Kellhus, too); the sorcerer and spy Achamian, whose self-doubt belies his actual mettle; and the novel-described 'harlot' Esmenet, whose problem is simply that her culture gives very few options to a woman once she's been rendered 'impure'. (The latter also has the disturbing problem that, as this setting is one in which mass belief is ontologically significant, it is possible that women really are worth less, because enough people hold it to be true.)
Of these, Achamian is the easiest to empathise with, although none of the protagonists (except Kellhus) really reveal their inner motivations to the reader (or to themselves) at first. Achamian's conflicts, however, stem from either external sources - the apocalyptic dreams that all sorcerers of his order suffer - or from his self-doubt, re-enforced by the perceived unholy nature of his profession. This makes him, in many ways, a more human protagonist than the others, and the only one who it is not a spoiler to confirm his survival unto the end (excepts from a history of the period attributed to him garnish the start of many chapters).
These are a complex work - as complex as either of their antecedents, at the least - and knowing in their examination of the myriad consequences of their setting. In this, they already surpass the vast majority of modern fantasy works, and thus despite, and because, of the uncomfortable moments and the "problems", I cannot recommend them to any potential reader more.

Review: The City and The City (China Mieville)

Every review I've seen of China Mieville's current novel describes it as Kafkaesque. Considering that the inside dustjacket mentions "shades of Kafka and Philip K Dick", one might be forgiven for suggesting that this doesn't necessarily reveal a terrifying erudition in the reviewer. Similarly, when I mention the (stronger, for me) resonances of 1984, you will be unsurprised to see this also referenced on that same dustjacket...
The difference between the Kafkaesque interpretation and the Orwellian is one of ontology. To read the separation of the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma as in some sense physical, despite the obvious cues in the earliest descriptions, is to apply the more extreme aspects of Kafka's surrealism where it is not needed. And yet, some, many, reviews seem to take this course.
So, the plot: Inspector Tyador Borlu of the apparently Eastern European city-state of Beszel has a murder case on his hands. The problem, it emerges, is that the murder took place not in Beszel, but in the sister-city of Ul Qoma, interpenetrating and interwoven with Beszel itself, and separated only by the assiduous conditioning of their citizens to ignore the other. And, worse, as he continues to investigate, it appears that the murder is just the tip of some kind of conspiracy, perhaps one that strikes at the heart of the separation itself.
Of course, the central conceit - of a parallel setting that people simply edit from their perception - appears in many works of fiction, notably Gaiman's Neverwhere, where, as here, it is a metaphor for all those aspects of society that we all blank from our perceptions as we wander the world. Or, rather, the city; one cannot imagine the same metaphor working in the country, where the opposite applies - the half-glimpsed vision of a world one never noticed is the metaphor there, not the consciously suppressed awareness of those you'd rather not be forced to share proximity with.
Unlike other novels making use of this conceit, though, The City & The City actually investigates it, makes the conceit the star, and the villain, perhaps, of the piece. In Neverwhere, the mystical equivalent of "unseeing" people is just... there. In The City & The City, it is an almost active force, an enforced taboo with terrible consequences.
But, as with any cultural absurdity, it is simultaneously meaningless.

And that, perhaps, is where the story begins.

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