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Review: Quest For Lost Heroes by David Gemmell

Quest for Lost Heroes (Drenai Tales, #4)Quest for Lost Heroes by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“What can we do?”

Okas shrugged. “We can defend the child.”

“Can we succeed?”

“No, Chareos. But when has that ever been important?”

If you’ve read Tolkien’s The Silmarillion you might have felt the same sense of shock as I did that the epic story of Frodo, the ring and the return of the king was summarised in just a few paragraphs that gave the barest details of that mighty quest but placed it firmly in its place as an important but minor episode in the history of Middle-Earth.

Something similar happens here: this story is sandwiched between The King Beyond The Gate and Winter Warriors which would be published about seven years after this. In that latter book, reference is made to the War Of The Twins, a bitter war of succession that ravaged the continent that these stories take place on. Mr Gemmell never wrote about this war but the results of it were all over the “future” Drenai novels. And here we see its genesis.

And it’s a bloody shambles.

It starts with a raid by Nadir tribesmen on a village where they steal away women for the slave markets. A young man believing himself to be in love with one of the girls embarks on a quest to win her back. He enlists the aid of four veterans of the last war with the Nadir – against Tenaka Khan, one of the heroes of The King Beyond The Gate (and we find out the results of the brilliant epilogue from that book as well) – as well as other allies and then the story takes a rather grim turn…

I didn’t enjoy this book the first time I read it. It was well-written and moved fast but it felt dark and nihilistic and joyless. It still does but I can see a real sense of purpose to it now. What makes it clearer is the sense you get of the larger history surrounding this novel, of where it fits into the author’s schematic of what he wanted to achieve with this series and the novels own themes.

It doesn’t seem fair that a novel has to be read in the context of eight or nine other books in order for it to be accessible, but really, you don’t need to know any of the history to get a kick out of this book, although it doesn’t hurt – those other books just throw into grim relief the message we get here.

Because one of the themes of Gemmell’s work – all of his work – is that we are fools for trying to see a purpose in our lives and what happens to us. Some years from now, we will discover that a defining event of the history of the Drenai people was caused by a boy who wouldn’t give up searching for a girl he knew he didn’t love because people had started dying and to do so would render their sacrifices meaningless. Which is what turned me off this book in the first place… until I realised that so many things in life that were important to me only happened because I was in a certain place at a particular time – a jump to the left or a step to the right would have made these events not happen at all and my life would be very different indeed.

And this novel is a collection of circumstances all happening in a particular way in order for a particular history to happen.

I also think that it might be the novel in which Gemmell realised that he shouldn’t keep writing potboilers and started going for something a bit greater, because there’s a shift in his writing taking place here: his characters are becoming a little deeper and his plots have a little more meat on them and his stories carry a little more weight from the world in which they were being written rather than the one in which they were happening. Even the elements familiar from his other books – an underworld, rites of passage, confronting (literal) demons, admitting that you do actually care about something bigger than yourself and making sacrifices to prove it – shine a little brighter here, possibly because they are the only lights we see.

It’s not an enjoyable book, but it’s brilliant and dark and complicated. It’s not a “must-read” Gemmell, more of a “should-read”.

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Review: Casino royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale (James Bond #1)Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to read this and compare it to the Bond we get for the rest of this series. Although, given that I haven’t read these novels in nearly a decade, maybe not.

This is the novel that started the industry of spy novels and – once President Kennedy admitted he was a fan – movies and televisions show that pretty much defined the genre for the better part of twenty years.

Surprisingly, it’s a very modest beginning for such a successful and influential series: Bond, a humble civil servant, is assigned by his boss (the enigmatic but crusty “M”) to a fairly unusual but routine job: an amnesiac French unionist/ gangster known as “Le Chiffre” (The Number – an interesting but soon-to-be-characteristic Bond villain name and origin) is struggling for funds and is trying his luck at a casino to build them up again. Bond is known as a successful gambler and is given the task of foiling him.

Despite the seeming mundanity of the plot, much is made here of Bond’s “Double O” status, his license to kill, and in a rare moment of introspection, he talks about how he earned it and the reader is given the impression that he hates what it makes him out to be. We also get a rare picture of Bond’s inner life: he confesses to Vesper Lynd, first of the “Bond girls,” that being a bachelor makes him want to make life interesting so he has become an aficionado of gourmet cooking and living. He comes across here as a bit lonely and sad.

To be honest, though, it seems that this is not just an opening entry in the series but also an “origin story” for Bond because we get so many defining characteristics of what makes him tick in later novels: the events of this novel seem to set the mould for his character in later books and give him the motivation to take on the missions that he does, as well as continue to work in the Secret Service.

The amazing thing is that it has aged as well as it has. The sexism of the novel doesn’t sit well with a modern reader but the rest of the book feels as though it could have happened pretty much any time since then. Bond’s conservatism notwithstanding – and I’m going to advance my theory that the “thriller” genre is all about maintaining the status quo and keeping things as they are right now – this is a terse novel that keeps the reader guessing about what’s going to happen even after the “deus ex SMERSHina” (sorry) that saves Bond’s life about 50 pages from the true ending.

Having read many other series of novels and seen how characters and their personalities change over time due to history, author’s whims or just for the sake of believability, it’s refreshing to see a character emerge fully-formed from the author’s forehead and become, by the end of the story, the character that he essentially remains for the rest of his adventures (more or less – like I said, I haven’t read these books for ages and I’m looking forward to see if I’m proved wrong). Bond does develop over the course of the series but it is quite glacial compared to what we’ve become accustomed to in recent years.

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Review: Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes (translated by D. D. R. Owen)

Arthurian RomancesArthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not an academic, nor have I played one on television.

However, I do know that sometimes you just need to slog through something because it is important that you find stuff out. From reading this translation of Chretien de Troyes poems I have found out that “prose translation” is a phase that means, “I’m too lazy to consult a thesaurus and do a proper job on this because I’ve probably got an article on the history of tildes in Spanish literature to write or something equally pressing.”

That’s really unfair of me: I know that translation is a hard job at the best of times and that translating something from medieval French into a serviceable modern-day English equivalent is really hard. It’s just frustrating to read something that has been written to a specific rhythm and style in a different rhythm and style. At least, it is for me. And I have no medieval French. But a phrase like,

“He was sitting, armed from head to toe, on a charger and was held in the stirrup by one leg, whilst to give himself an air of jaunty elegance, he had thrown his other over his charger’s neck and mane.”

should make me want to keep reading because it is a vivid and charming image that perfectly sums up the personality of this knight who will (spoiler) come to a bad end because he’s about to challenge Lancelot (making his first ever proper appearance in popular literature as Guinevere’s lover) to single combat.

This book has several great moments like this but they are few and far between: most of them are sandwiched between chunks of deadly prose that read like, well, like poorly-translated poetry.

What I need is another translation that is actually poetry, or a couple of years to train myself in medieval French so I can read it in the original setting. Because, like I said above, these are important stories in the Arthurian canon – they introduce Lancelot as a major figure and develop the grail myth as a theme to the stories – and I’m enjoying reading it as it develops over time and seeing how it becomes what we know it as today.

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Review: The Last Guardian by David Gemmell

Last GuardianLast Guardian by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another incredibly fast-paced adventure featuring Jon Shannow. This time, Mr Gemmell takes the Hancock/Von Daniken ideas, a fairly large presence in the last book, and turns it all the way up to 11. However, he also includes the Bermuda Triangle, a race of lizardmen, men turning into lions, mid-life crises, nuclear war, some timey-wimey-ness, more stuff about Atlantis, Biblical legends, as well as a primer on how to control a community through fear and gunplay.

Frankly, it should be a mess, but it’s tightly controlled and you barely raise an eyebrow at each preposterous development as it comes into play because you’re too damn busy wondering just how Shannow and his cohorts are going to get out out of their next mess.

The setting feels a lot more realistically constructed this time around, possibly because it builds sensibly on what was revealed in the last book, possibly also because Gemmell appears to have a tighter rein on his creativity and is becoming a much more disciplined writer: unlike several of his previous books, there are fewer storylines that feel underdeveloped (I wanted to read more about the lizardmen, but that’s a different thing entirely). I did think that Sharazad was a little two-dimensional as a villain, but I had little else to complain about. Gemmell commits a series author’s sin in that he assumes that the reader has read the previous books and doesn’t need more than a couple of sentences reference to get up to speed: explaining Shannow and Pendarric’s relationship as “He saved me when I was trapped on the Titanic in the middle of a desert by sending me a magic sword” sounds really cool but stretches credulity a little – hell, I’ve read the previous book and it sounds a little bit silly!

Great fun.

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Review: The Bloody Cup (King Arthur 3) by M. K. Hume

The Bloody Cup (King Arthur, #3)The Bloody Cup by M.K. Hume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(This review first appeared on the sadly defunct website The Specusphere in 2010)

The first two volumes of M. K. Hume’s Arthurian trilogy were released last year to critical acclaim. This concluding volume ties up the story into the climax that we all know is coming, but still manages to offer some surprises along the way.

It begins some twenty years after the second volume and we witness Artor (Arthur) in decline. The glory days are far behind him and while he has the respect of many minor kings and lords, there are some who are merely waiting for his grasp on power to slip from his hands. And, of course, there is the ever-present Saxon threat looming overhead. We have the heirless Artor, his venal wife Wenhaver (Hume’s interpretation of Guinevere), the scheming lordling Modred and the astonishing supporting cast of familiar and new characters. The intrigues and battles are exciting and dramatic, the history leaps off the page and the sense that this is what should have happened is palpable.

All the way through this book you get the sense of a kingdom in decline, despite the best efforts of the powerful to save it. There are the younger generations coming up through the ranks to carry on the traditions but they are betrayed and slain, leaving Artor in increasing despair as to the fate of his realm becoming increasingly prey to men with lower aims than his. The joys that Artor feels as he sees his plans begin to show that they may live on beyond him is keenly balanced by the heartbreak as they go awry. This makes it so much more different to so many other Arthurian stories which sometimes come across as a checklist of appropriate themes and characters signposting the author’s point. This is especially provocative in this volumes’ use of the Grail legend.

This is an amazing conclusion. The story – retold, retooled and ripped-off as it has been over the years – is instantly recognisable and it is hard for any author to come up with new things to say about it. Hume not only manages to give us an historically realistic Arthur, but also manages to twist the established legends into new forms, making us think about their meaning anew.

2016 reread thoughts: the author seems to trust the reader a lot more in this volume as there is far less signposting of events and a greater depth to the characters in this volume. However, this is countered by a an awful lot of contrivance and shoehorning in of established legend to fit a story that readers might be expecting, which is a real shame because the differences that this story takes from what we might expect from a story about Arthur are really interesting. I also never really felt that Modred was built up as a worthy foe: his motives and behaviour are too stereotyped and cliched – I could accept a vain Modred, a dissembling and plotting Modred, a child-molesting Modred, or a rebellious Modred, but to put all four on the page feels like overkill.

There are some great moments: Percivale and Bedwyr dealing with Galahad is a highlight of the series, the final battle is tremendous, but they are overshadowed by the poor motivation of the characters, some clumsy plotting and the rushed conclusion.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re into Arthuriana, though.

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Review: The Mabinogion

The MabinogionThe Mabinogion by Unknown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given that a lot of my recent reading has featured Arthur in some form or another, I thought it might be an idea to go back to the beginning and see just how the legends have changed over time. So I’ve started with this collection of Welsh stories, around a thousand years old.

It’s an interesting collection, telling the adventures of some Welsh folk heroes or characters. For those of us who are interested in Arthur, he doesn’t turn up for several stories but then he becomes a mainstay: not a main character but an important secondary character, referred to as King or Emperor interchangeably and performing the astonishing deeds of physical prowess that we have come to expect from him.

It’s a different world, though, to what we are used to in Arthurian stories of the modern day: there’s honour at stake, and worth gained through deeds of strength and courage, but it feels more akin to the honour coveted by Achilles in the Iliad – strength and victory in battle – rather than our modern concepts of integrity and respect. Either way, the characters soon receive towering reputations as men of strength and power rather than as defenders of the king’s law and those weaker than themselves.

This matters little, though, because these are great fun and enjoyable to read… once you have acclimatised yourself to the archaic style. It’s not difficult to read, but, if – like me – you are not used to reading works from more than a few hundred years in the past, it does take a little time to get used to “how things work” in the Mabinogion. For one thing, characterisation doesn’t have the subtlety that we are used to now in our stories – the lessons or morality we can take from these stories is that of broad strokes rather than details. For another, the details that we do get are often more about who is present and what they are wearing or sitting on rather than who they are and what they’re like. There’s also the run-on paragraphs which might go on for most of a page and have several conversations in them – the indenting of lines for each new piece of speech is only a modern invention (mind you, so are paragraphs themselves) so that’s another convention you must adjust to. Mind you, it does read aloud very well, which is how these stories would have been experienced when they were first created.

All this whinging sounds as though I didn’t enjoy it when I had a thoroughly good time with it: the telling of the tales is so jolly and matter-of-fact that you feel fairly blase towards the fact that someone has killed two hundred men by crushing in their skulls or defeated eighty knights in single combat. I think that bugged me the most – hardly anybody mourns anything in this story except their reputations.

There’s also the interesting take on arthurian myth: this is one of the earliest collections that features the king in any depth and it’s great to see how many elements of the story are already in place: Cei and Bedweyr, Gereint and Gwalchmai are here, as is Gwenhwyfar. There’s no Lancelot yet or Merlin or Saxon invaders: they are later additions for when the story becomes more widely known and a part of folklore. For now, Arthur provides a backdrop rather than a context.

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Review: Knights Of Dark Renown by David Gemmell

Knights of Dark RenownKnights of Dark Renown by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This has long been a sentimental favouite of mine because it features villains who are redeemed, heroes who overcome their pasts, cowardice conquered, people taking a stand though it may cost them more than they are willing to pay and it has some cracking dialogue and scenes.

But it is a bit of a mess: not undisciplined or unfocused or lacking in structure, just a little half-arsed in the mix. I know that in this day and age we have come to expect a fully-formed history and setting in our secondary-world fantasy and that these things are sometimes more of a joy for the author than they are for the reader, but the background here feels – to me, at least – to be more of a setup for the showdown at the end rather than an organically nurtured situation. The “what happened next” epilogue – of which Mr Gemmell was a master – suggests that there are other stories going on and situations unfolding that we will not be privy too as well as indicating that problems don’t end just because the author has stopped reporting on them, but the basic premise of this tale feels constructed.

Very well-constructed, though: we get the idea of a society that has taken little steps towards accommodating evil as part of their culture; there are hints at wider conflicts and history on the periphery of the story but it all feels contrived to give us this story of a “last stand” and an “ultimate evil” to be overcome. Although this ultimate evil – the expulsion of “ethnically unpure” members of a society in order to bring a society back to its former greatness sits a little more uneasily this year than it did on earlier readings. I get that the Vampires are very obviously supposed to be Nazi surrogates but at this moment in time it feels a little too close to the bone…

There’s also the issue of the characters names: many of them are nicked from Celtic mythology which gives them a weight and relevance that they just don’t have for this tale and they feel like the “Magical Celt ™” characters that he has used before and will again.

However, there’s a lot to love in this: the build-up of story is just about perfect before unleashing an epic finish over the last 80 or 90 pages that culminates in a duel to decide the fate of the nation. There’s the aforementioned “little steps” that we take towards becoming evil – good intentions paving our way to becoming damned, as well as the sophistry we all indulge in to justify a “greater good,” even when we think and behave like good people still. There’s the small details that show how characters change in pursuit of a goal or a cause and the sacrifices they will make to achieve that. I think this novel also has more major female characters than any of Gemmell’s previous novels, which is cool. There’s also his trademark “purity of motive” conversations which are just brilliant here and really demonstrate that Gemmell knows exactly what he was doing when he makes us barrack for thoroughly unlikable characters.

The conclusion feels rushed, however, after this perfect setup, although I can see how this story was just about the deposing of an evil monarch and his replacement with something more palatable which would render any political struggle by the characters anti-climactic.

So really, my problems with this story are entirely my own but it didn’t stop me from enjoying it as a slightly more meaty piece of brain candy that makes a great mental movie.

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Review: Warrior Of The West (King Arthur 2) by M. K. Hume

Warrior of the West (King Arthur #2)Warrior of the West by M.K. Hume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review first appeared on the sadly-defunct Specusphere website in 2010:

I was really looking forward to reading this book: the first novel in Hume’s Arthurian trilogy was one of the standout books of 2009 for me. It was gripping, historically accurate and told a great story convincingly. I was also taken with the range of characters: callow Artor (Hume’s Arthur), in whom you could see the seeds of greatness; Caius (Kay), whose casual cruelty is held in check by his allegiance to his half-brother; to the calculated, yet humane plotting of Myrddion (Merlin). And there were other characters whom are not part of the Arthurian canon but who were portrayed so vividly and warmly that they leapt from the page. I was especially fond of Targo, the Roman Centurion who raises horses for Artor’s stepfather and teaches Artor all he knows about combat and tactics. And there was Gallia, Artor’s first and truest love, who dies tragically.

So I opened this book with anticipation. Very quickly I was back in the Dark Ages, battling with Artor as he tries desperately to keep Britain together. Hume makes the decision to skip several years to show us an Artor on the verge of his dream of a united Britain. He is a harder man too: you can sense that these years have been tough on him but rewarding as well, as is evidenced by his idealism still being intact. But, just as he seems about to achieve his goal, the Saxons begin to encroach further into his lands than they have before, demanding land and conquest. Artor is also considering taking a wife, though more to secure the throne than for any romantic reasons.

However, he finds that dealing with a spoiled princess may be even harder than repelling the Saxons…

And this is where you might find this book becoming a little too much for you: Wenhaver (Hume’s Guinevere) is not an attractive character; there is also no Lancelot in Hume’s vision of Camelot; Nimue and Merlin’s story is slightly different to established legend, as is Perceval’s; and Morgana, like Cassandra in David Gemmell’s retelling of the Trojan War, is a much different character to what “established” legend might say.

But what is the established legend? Marion Zimmer Bradley’s version, as recounted in The Mists Of Avalon? T. H. White’s version? Lord Tennyson’s? Sir Thomas Malory’s? Chretien de Troye’s? Geoffrey of Monmouth’s? All of these, as well as countless others, have added to the myth and built up what we know as the “story” so far. Hume has done reams of research for this series and as it progresses you realize just how much of what we consider to be part of Arthuriana was tacked on over the course of centuries to become what we know to be the accepted story today. Hume’s Artor is a man concerned with leaving his kingdom better than when he found it, a man well aware of what History can do to your reputation. This is Camelot as it could have happened, with very little myth and hardly any magic, save for a good story well told.

There are flaws, of course. Hume commits the oh-so-common sin of not trusting her story enough to let the reader work it out for themselves which is frustrating, especially when there is so much on offer for readers who have an interest in this sort of historical fiction. Also, and I hope it gets caught up for future releases, Chapters 12 and 13 have the same title. However, I enjoyed this as a worthy successor to the first book. I can’t wait for the final volume.

2016 reread thoughts: still a lot of fun, but the flaws in this are far more obvious. Many things are spelled out to the reader that need only to be hinted at, Wenhaver is presented without any positive virtues at all so the reader is only left to take her as a villain without any redeeming features, which wouldn’t be so bad but the other major female character – Nimue – is presented as so wonderful that it starts to grate a bit. However, I appreciated anew the effort made to show Artor as a warrior king with a savagery lurking not terribly far under the surface and there’s a nice callback to a scene from the first book that gave me a real little thrill of foreshadowing finally coming to pass.

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Review: Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham

Trouble with LichenTrouble with Lichen by John Wyndham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this slim volume in pretty much one sitting. It has a great central idea: that a compound based on an exotic lichen can extend human lifespans. And Mr Wyndham has clearly done a lot of thinking about the implications such a drug could have on society and has people his story with some interesting characters but it does feel a little fluffy and vapid, despite a couple of chilling and dark moments. Not quite drama, not quite satire, but a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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Review: Last Sword Of Power by David Gemmell

Last Sword of Power (Stones of Power, #2)Last Sword of Power by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“We cannot hold this bridge,” said Oleg. “Weight of numbers will force us back, and once we are on level ground they will overwhelm us.”

“Now would be an exceptionally good time to think of a second strategy,” observed the Lance Lord as the Goths drew rein at the end of the causeway.

“I was just making conversation,” replied Oleg. “Do you object to me taking the right side?”

Much better than its predecessor, Ghost King. This story takes place a generation later and we pick up the story of a new struggle against some ridiculously evil villains cobbled together from various mythologies. But the setting feels a little more realistic and lived-in than the last book and the story benefits from it.

And it’s a great story, too: Cormac has lived in isolation all his life because of the circumstances of his birth. One day he is driven from his village and becomes embroiled against his will in the struggles of those far more powerful than him. He also discovers his true history…

Like Ghost King this book suffers from being too short: there are many characters and storylines that really needed to be longer to have had a greater impact and, while it says it’s set in Dark Ages Britain ™, it feels more like a Fantasyland with some historical trimmings.

But it tells a tighter, more disciplined story and presents characters who have aged and grown but are still as confused by everything as they have always been. Especially the relationship between Uther and Gian Avar which is basically a marriage built between two people far too proud to be any real good to each other. But we also have Galead who is the most interesting character in either book: his transformation from wastrel merchant prince to sensitive pacifist is a great story and highlights the contradictions of the genre that Gemmell was often trying to plumb in his books. Which is part of what’s terrific about Mr Gemmell’s books: people who are confused or unable to cope with some aspects of life but are able to cling to what they do understand and make some new meaning from it and add purpose to their life.

It still feels like a rehearsal for some of his later books but there’s enough exciting and interesting stuff going on that it isn’t noticeable. This isn’t Gemmell at his best but you can see traces of what makes him so damn good when he is there.

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