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Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

Old SchoolOld School by Tobias Wolff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic book about growing up and accepting that your identity isn’t as special as you thought. And with a far more interesting protagonist than Holden bloody Caulfield.

Seriously, I wanted to have gone to this school even though they would have flunked me out: my inner class warrior (never far from the surface, it seems) sneers at the rich boys of this novel and their petty rebellions but I love the environment that these students are in: it’s a school that values learning and knowledge (the two don’t always go together) but also places some high standards of behaviour upon their students.

There’s also the lesson, repeatedly given in this book, that sacrifices and compromises to your principles often have consequences that you might not want or expect. It also begs the question, “Is the fall worth it?” Mr Wolff doesn’t appear to know either, but he seems to have a better idea of what form an answer might take than a lot of other people.

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Review: Ironhand’s Daughter by David Gemmell

Ironhand's Daughter (The Hawk Queen)Ironhand’s Daughter by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a lesser-known book by Mr Gemmell, it seems, which is unfortunate because it is pretty good. It’s also the rare time that he has a female protagonist. I know it seems like tokenism these days but it was a pretty rare thing to do even just twenty years ago. The story is filled with what we’d consider to be cliches these days – which is great because it shows how much the field has developed – but it at least tries to push some boundaries by also including a black character (who doesn’t get killed!) and a character with dwarfism (but more on him later).

To start with, Sigarni is an interesting character: Gemmell spells this out for early on when she complain about behaving like a man in regards to her relationships but being called out for it differently to a male character. There are several other instances in which Sigarni – and others – realises that it would be easier for her to acquiesce to a male character, but in true Gemmell style she refuses to do it in any way that would compromise what she wants to achieve. And – eventually – she comes to be trusted, if not fully accepted by the other characters. However, it’s interesting to note that she has a lot of the same character arcs and moments that Gemmell gives his male protagonists (although the “underworld trip” taken by these characters as a growth activity is a little too obviously an object lesson rather than the regular “leveling up” that we’re used to).

Of course, she also gets accepted because it’s the way of her people to judge people on the strength of their deeds. In this book we have Gemmell giving another pass on his Magical Celts(tm) characters. They live in the mountains, have a social system based around clans and are oppressed by “outlanders.” Obviously they are more Scottish than Celtic, but the same rules apply. It’s going to be a few more books before we get the Rigante, but we can see another step Gemmell takes on the road to creating them. And they’re great characters but Gemmell still uses broad strokes rather than details for his backgrounds. At least, though, we have a couple of sympathetic voices on the side of the villains: for once they aren’t all bad and it’s great to see some balance and nuance taking place in the conflicts between the characters,something that has been missing possibly since Legend.

My biggest problem with this story is the character of Ballistar. He already starts behind the 8-ball because of his dwarfism and the mistrust it has engendered towards him by other members of his community. However, he has friends who care about him, skills that give him value to his town and he gains respect through his work and his deeds (unfortunately he’s also the character that seems to be used whenever a plot point needs to be explained). So it comes as a disappointment to the reader that a character who has overcome the problems dealt him by a capricious universe opts to take an easy way out. I get that other readers may feel differently and they are welcome to.

Other than that this is an enjoyable read that sets up the sequel easily and contains clues to what happens in it. It telegraphs the timey-wimey shenanigans of the sequel very smoothly but can also be read as a standalone novel quite easily.

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Review: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Catch 22Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably the most famous of the post-WW2 novels called a “post-war classic,” this is the story of an Air Force base on a small island in the Mediterranean. The main character is Yossarian who is sick of flying combat missions – or rather, of having the required number of combat missions increased by his superiors.

The style is very disciplined and tight but the situation could probably best be described as “Kafka meets Ionesco.” The story appears to ramble across its own timeline but only requires the reader to pay attention as everything does eventually coalesce into a beautiful whole by the end. It’s worth reading just for the dialogue: hearing Milo explain the labyrinthine ins and outs of his all-consuming syndicate (of which we all have a share) is at first amusing before it becomes amoral and monstrous. And that’s a situation we have across so many of the characters and their stories: they start off funny or incompetent or petty before we realise that they are, in fact, something else entirely.

The only fault with this book is probably that it has become so influential that other writers have mastered its style and theme and structure so well that it has become a victim of its own success. Just keep reminding yourself of Isaac Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, though, and enjoy the whole experience.

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Review: The First Chronicles Of Druss The Legend by David Gemmell

The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend (Drenai Tales, #6)The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A return to form as we get a possibly unnecessary story about the life of Druss before the events of Legend. It does get a bit silly in places (the whole Snaga subplot and the pirate battle, for instance) but the growth of Druss as a character over time is developed carefully and believably (thank you, Lion Of Macedon).

Good fun, but more a case of Mr Gemmell flexing his muscles rather than pushing himself.

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Review: Of Time And Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

Of Time and StarsOf Time and Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a while I started to notice a pattern in many of these stories: framing device, really cool idea expounded clearly and elegantly, completed by a humorous punchline that completely deflates the neatness of the tale’s execution. I think I prefer Sir Arthur’s longer works, although “The Nine Billion Names Of God,” “Security Check” and “The Sentinel” are old favourites of mine.

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Review: Bloodstone by David Gemmell

BloodstoneBloodstone by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This would ordinarily be a 3-star review but I finished it in one session, so there. I liked the ending that Shannow got in The Last Guardian and this felt a little like the dead horse being flogged.

However, it does have a great time-travel plot and it’s Mr Gemmell back on form with his philosophising about violence and means and ends. The ending is a bit of a doozy as well. The biggest problem is that it does rely very heavily – as did the other Jon Shannow books – on the reader swallowing any number of authorial conceits before accepting that they’re in for a hell of a ride once they do.

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Review: 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever – and – oh my God – it’s full of stars

I’ve been rereading this book for over thirty years now and this is the first time I noticed the significance of the name of not just Bowman but also Moon-Watcher, the Pleistocene-era character (#litfail).

So, the history of this book is tied completely to the movie that it is a sibling to: it complements the Kubrick film, rather than is spun-off from it: Sir Arthur wrote the book in conjunction with the production of the film and based it upon the screenplay he wrote with Stanley Kubrick. There are some divergent paths it takes from the film – the bulk of the film takes place along the backdrop of Jupiter, whereas here it is Saturn, and the last half-hour of the film is explained completely coherently here. In fact, it’s handy to read the book as well as watch the film for a completely immersive experience, IMNSHO.

I love it: Clarke’s dry, matter-of-fact, optimistic style is perfect for a story such as this. Especially when the story takes the darker turn as HAL begins to become conflicted about his mission and makes mistakes. He is also a great explainer of his ideas and worlds; so much so that what should feel like dry exposition is a gleeful expansion of the world behind the story. And there is so much world that other writers would leave out for the sake of plot. However, Clarke isn’t that interested in complicated storylines: nothing is wasted or thrown in for extra excitement. This is SF as the true “literature of ideas.”

But it has dated: for one thing, it’s now 2016 and we still don’t have a manned Moon base or working cryogenics, or true AI, malevolent or otherwise. Clarke has a great strike rate for predictions, but he misses a few boats here. So this now becomes an exercise in what the future may have looked liked 60 years ago.

Which is a bit depressing.

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Review: Waylander 2 by David Gemmell

In the Realm of the Wolf (Drenai Tales, #5)In the Realm of the Wolf by David Gemmell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fairly ordinary entry into the canon, I’m afraid. It tells a good story but it lacks the depth and excitement of earlier chapters. Waylander does his thing, but you never feel that he’s in any kind of peril (because he’s just that awesome), while the rest of the characters move from danger to danger with really making you care about them too much, plus there’s the realisation about three-quarters of the way through that this is a book that is simply telling another minor-but-crucial event in Drenai history (similar to Quest For Lost Heroes but without the nihilism) but with added mysticism and malfunctioning ancient technology.

Like all of Mr Gemmell’s books, it’s a fun ride, but it really doesn’t have the same gravitas or resonance of other books.

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Review: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Dark MatterDark Matter by Michelle Paver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Horror stories set in the polar regions aren’t as common as you might think. It seems to be a natural fit, really, the stark landscape seeming to be a ready fit with the themes and symbols of horror. But then, horror seems to fit better in the realm of the familiar and the everyday, to make the transition from mundane to terrifying that much scarier: it’s easy to name five horror novels set in a hotel, say, or a circus, or even a small town, but can you name five set at either of the poles?

Michelle Paver’s new novel takes place close to the North Pole, just before the onset of the Arctic Night. It’s a setting close to that of her series Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness and like that, this too is steeped in knowledge of the period and people (Britain’s upper class between the wars). It is the story of Jack Miller, lonely and down on his luck, who joins a small expedition planning on making a journey to the desolate northern region of Gruhuken. For Jack, it is the realisation of a dream. He joins the expedition as their wireless operator, the one responsible for maintaining communication to the outside world, ironic given his defensive, introspective personality.

The expedition begins with optimism and hope but it soon becomes desperate and forlorn. The crew of five are plagued with what appears to be plain old-fashioned, non-fatal bad luck and are soon reduced to just Jack alone, maintaining the wireless and transmitting to an outside world that seems ever more distant. Jack has been alone for many years, despite working in London, and believes that he can cope with the darkness and the isolation, but he soon realises how much he depends on the company of others. But Jack is not alone: many years before, a solitary miner was murdered brutally. Murdered because he was in the way of a profitable patch of land, brutally because, well, because if you can get away with nobody finding out about it, why shouldn’t you? Jack soon comes to believe that his spirit still seeks vengeance and solace among the month-long Arctic night…

This is a (ha-ha) chilling story of the effects that loneliness can have on the soul. I won’t be giving too much away to reveal that it doesn’t have a terribly high gore factor but that only makes it the scarier: the moments of horror are all the more taut and believable for being few and far between. Paver makes a convincing argument that we are not very far removed from the brutal murderers who killed the lonely miner: there are several scenes that reveal the casual violence in our supposedly-civilised society, with the attendant surprise that it could even be considered unusual. This comes together with the cold beauty of the Arctic to make a stately tale of exploration and horror that lingers in your memory.

2016 reread: Despite sagging a little near the middle, this remains a fantastic and atmospheric read: and Jack is a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist, despite being quite prickly and unlikable throughout most of the book.

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Review: Morningstar by David Gemmell

MorningstarMorningstar by David Gemmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of my favourites back in the day so it gives me a bit of a pang to “only” give this 4 stars. I think that after the heights Mr Gemmell showed he was capable of in Lion Of Macedon I may have had some fairly high expectations of what could be achieved by a talented writer in this genre.

The story is terrific: it’s the only one of Gemmell’s novels to use a first-person narrator rather than his usual “third-person-omniscient.” The trouble with this is that the style isn’t that much different to that of Gemmell’s usual authorial voice: the character narrating it – Owen Odell, wandering idealist – is telling it from many years after the fact so we get a lot of detail explaining why Owen feels the way he does and explaining the actions of other characters, so you have to wonder why Gemmel thought this was the best way of telling this particular tale at all.

However, the story is great: it’s the tale of what it might have been like for someone to become an Arthur or a Robin Hood. The twist: Jarek Mace – our protagonist – is a complete prick who’s only in it because of self-interest and greed. Watching him get drawn into leading a rebellion and come to terms with the fact that he’s become a figurehead is very entertaining, not least of which is the fact that he doesn’t really change any elements of his personality.

Other elements of the story are good, too: it’s a follow-up to the rollicking Knights Of Dark Renown but not a sequel so you don’t need to have read that earlier book to enjoy this one. The worldbuilding in this one is a little more solid than that volume, as in most Gemmell sequels, and the historical elements are also an integral part of the plot, so fleshing them out is of benefit to the reader also. There’s also a “timey-wimey” plot that Gemmell uses particularly well, although it does feel a little contrived at times.

There’s also some great characters in this: the arguments between Mace and Odell are entertaining, especially because Mace and his single-minded self-interest always win on points but get foiled by real-world events that seem to come down in favour of Odell’s point of view (This contrast between philosophy and reality is something that I really love about Gemmell’s books). The supporting cast are terrific, especially as they decide to stick with their rebellion in spite of Mace’s personality and behaviour. The problem is that – because this is told by Odell – we often don’t get a suitable motivation for the antagonists, despite some exposition-heavy scenes, so the villains often seem a little cartoon-y, without the cloudiness of motive that we would get from many of Gemmell’s other books.

Those faults aside, this is an enjoyable story with a little more meat to it than the standard epic fantasy of the time it was published.

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