Monday, 22 June 2015

Review: 'Night of Knives' by Ian C. Esslemont

The empire is named for the tiny island and city of Malaz, now a sleepy, seedy backwater port. Tonight however, a once-in-a-generation Shadow Moon brings demon hounds and darker beings. And a prophecy promises the return of long missing Emperor Kellanved to the contended imperial throne. This night will determine the fate of the world.

Night of Knives is the first of Ian C. Esslemont’s six Malazan Empire books, which are designed to be read alongside the ten-book Malazan Book of the Fallen series written by Steven Erikson. Erikson and Esslemont co-created the incredible world of Malaz over thirty years ago, and given that they’re writing about the same world and characters I don’t think it’s at all unfair to directly compare Esslemont with Erikson . . . but, sadly, there is no real comparison here.

The story of Night of Knives is set several years before the events of Erikson’s (vastly superior) series, and focuses on an event that has hitherto been only mysteriously alluded to: the night the Emperor disappeared. It’s a great idea for a novel, and the actual story itself should feel quite nicely self-contained, set as it is over the course of a single night. Unfortunately Esslemont’s somewhat pedestrian writing style makes this relatively short novel feel like a real slog. The plot is slow and clumsy when it should be fast-paced and exciting; the settings are flat and repetitive when they should be evocative; and the characters are distant and passive when they should be sympathetic and engaging.

Night of Knives centres around two major POV characters: Kiska, a local-born thief; and Temper, former bodyguard to the great Dassem Ultor (another legendary figure name-dropped throughout the main series). While neither of these characters is dislikeable, I felt a complete lack of connection with Kiska, and had only marginally more sympathy for Temper due to the few flashbacks granting us a little of his history. Esslemont’s characterisation is far from subtle, with Kiska coming across as an irritating self-centred youth and Temper’s every action seemingly completely contradicting his thoughts. I found that I had no idea what either character was going to do next, and even less idea of whether or not I cared.

I think one of the main problems regarding the characters is how little they actually do. Characters from the main series such as Tayschrenn and Temper seem to spend most of the novel acting like curious bystanders rather than major players and, while it’s nice to see them given more page time here, they seem to have no real impact on the plot itself. Even Kiska spends pretty much the entirety of the book reacting to events rather than participating in them. This sense of passively witnessing proceedings, rather than actively taking part in them, is perhaps a large part of why Night of Knives doesn’t feel particularly engaging. Although Esslemont does manage to scrape together a nice (if somewhat feeble) air of tension, most of the real action happens off-screen, and as such the characters – and thus the reader – feel as though they are of little importance in the night’s events, and have even less at stake in their outcome.

And it’s not just the characters I had issues with: I also felt the pacing of events to be a little off, with the much-anticipated climax occurring off-screen, followed by another series of events with yet another climax. These final events involve a vague subplot comprising an Azath house and a magical attack on the island, and its relevance to the rest of the events is not made entirely clear. It all feels a bit bewildering, as though two separate stories have been shoehorned together. Another thing I found confusing was the surplus of ‘dark figures’ and ‘men in cloaks’; Esslemont’s use of noun phrases rather than names meant that I sometimes had difficulty keeping track of who was who, and just what the hell was going on, particularly in the ongoing conflict between the Claws and the shadow cultists.

However, it’d be unfair to say that there are no positives to be found in Esslemont’s debut novel. For instance, I really enjoyed the extended flashbacks involving Temper’s time in Y’Ghatan: these segments reveal a lot about events that have so far been only cryptically alluded to in the main series, and provide a nice bit of backstory for Temper’s character. The novel as a whole actually improves as it progresses, and the imagery the author manages to evoke – mystic ice-bound beings, fog, darkness and shadow, monstrous hounds, undead – creates a nicely eerie atmosphere. In fact, the entire concept of the novel – set on a single night, on an ice-besieged island, during a Shadow Moon – is awesome. It’s just a shame it’s so awkwardly executed, and that the presenting of circumstances seems so painfully contrived (what are the chances an unpredictable Shadow Moon would just happen to occur on this night of all nights?).

So, the premise of Night of Knives is fairly solid, and its resolution fairly satisfying. However, I find myself left with a lot of questions, such as: Why is Temper so desperate to involve himself in the night’s events when his current mission in life is to remain under the empire’s radar? What exactly is a Shadow Moon? Why are they so unpredictable, how do they work, and why are they never mentioned in the main series? Who is Agayla? Who was the old man in the fishing boat? Who was the old man in the pub? What was that vague mention of a prophecy all about?

Why couldn’t Steven Erikson have written this book instead?


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Review: 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' by J.K. Rowling

 The Dursleys were so mean and hideous that summer that all Harry Potter wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he's packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature named Dobby who says that if Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.

And strike it does. For in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor, Gilderoy Lockheart, a spirit named Moaning Myrtle who haunts the girls' bathroom, and the unwanted attentions of Ron Weasley's younger sister, Ginny.

But each of these seem minor annoyances when the real trouble begins, and someone--or something--starts turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects...Harry Potter himself?

I first read this book in 1999, when I was 10: it was a gift from my parents for having a good school report, since they knew I loved the first Harry Potter book to bits. In the years since then I read and re-read this book, along with its predecessor, too many times to count, and went to watch the film version at the cinema three times along with my equally Harry Potter-obsessed best friend. I pretty much view this entire series through a pair of unbreakable, bulletproof, rose-tinted glasses, and so, as with my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this review comes with a ‘Nostalgia Warning’ attached (and also a spoiler warning for those twelve people in the world who haven’t read the books or watched the films).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets follows Harry and his best friends Ron and Hermione through their second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This second instalment in the Harry Potter series takes all the awesome ingredients of the first book – lessons in wizardry, broomstick sports, House rivalry, dangerous creatures, magic and mystery – and throws them into a cauldron (pewter, standard size 2), along with a whole bunch of newer, darker stuff, including anti-Mugglism (that’s a word, right?), blood feuds, mysterious attacks, and wizard politics, bubbling them up together to make a fun and exciting plot. We get to visit a few new settings at the start of the book – such as the dark and twisted Knockturn Alley, and of course the Weasleys’ delightfully hodge-podge home The Burrow – which is nice, and also some new characters, including Harry’s biggest fan Dobby the House-Elf, who is adorable.

In the tradition of the first book in the series, Chamber of Secrets continues to document Dumbledore’s astounding epic fails in the area of Child Protection. Something is loose in the halls of Hogwarts: students are being attacked and Petrified by this unknown terror, and rumours of the Chamber of Secrets abound. But it’s not the first time this has happened: fifty years ago someone else opened the Chamber of Secrets . . . and fifty years ago, a student actually died. But it’s business as usual at Hogwarts: both lessons and Quidditch continue as normal, and the faculty appear to make no attempt whatsoever to actually investigate the attacks. The one time that Harry, who has twice been found at the scene of an attack in its immediate aftermath, is hauled to the Headmaster’s office, he is subjected to Dumbledore’s version of a rigorous interrogation: that is, one question: “is there anything you wish to tell me?” If only Dumbledore had pressed Harry for more information – or if Dumbledore had only thought to interview the ghost of the girl who was killed fifty years ago, you know, the one that lives at Hogwarts, for Christ’s sake – then the whole thing might have been resolved much sooner and with less hassle. I’m not criticising so much as poking fun, but seriously – come on, Dumbledore!

On the upside, Chamber of Secrets is the first in the Harry Potter series to contain real elements of horror, and Rowling does an incredible job of balancing this with the novel’s light-hearted tone. For the first time we get a real sense of danger within the castle: the increasing frequency of attacks, the atmosphere of tension within the school, the palpable fear about the mysterious monster . . . not to mention the eerie disembodied voices, the bloody writing on the walls, and of course the sinister lair of murderous giant spiders. Needless to say, Chamber of Secrets is much darker than its predecessor. Of course it could be even darker; and of course the villains are somewhat cartoonish (Lockhart, the Dursleys, even Lucius Malfoy to some extent), but since it’s a children’s book with a twelve-year-old protagonist, I think I can forgive it.

I find it difficult to believe that this book used to be one of my least favourites of the Harry Potter series, along with Prisoner of Azkaban and The Half-Blood Prince. I’ll have to wait and see what I make of the others when I get to them; but re-reading Chamber of Secrets now, I think it’s superior to the first book in many ways, not to mention different, focusing as it does on horror rather than mystery. I love Rowling’s trademark dry humour, and as with the first book, this along with her light-hearted tone makes Chamber of Secrets a joy to read.


Thursday, 11 June 2015

Tough Travels: Orphans

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature. Every Thursday I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Full credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for coming up with the idea: be sure to check out his blog!

This week’s topic is ORPHANS.

No one in fantasyland amounts to anything if they still have both parents – RULE NUMBER ONE.

I thought of a TON of entries for this list right off the top of my head: Eragon, Frodo, Harry . . . but then I realised that my list of orphans was almost identical to the list I made for ‘Messiahs’ week, so I decided to go in a slightly different direction . . .


(Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)

Poor Tom Riddle Jr. He grew up in an orphanage, spending his days innocently murdering rabbits and stealing other kids’ possessions after his crazy inbred mother died giving birth to him. Dissatisfied with not technically being an orphan, he later sought out and slaughtered his father and his paternal grandparents. But he turned out alright in the en- actually, no. No, he didn’t. Who knew?


(The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)

She’s big, she’s ugly, and everyone hates her (hey, we’ve all been there, ‘Lobby.). Poor, misunderstood giant spider Shelob is the orphaned spawn of Ungoliant, an arachnid behemoth who was either killed by Elrond’s dad, or who . . . ate herself? Not sure. Speaking of spiders . . .


(Harry Potter (again) by J.K. Rowling)

Eight-legged freak Aragog was imported from his homeland by unscrupulous dark wizards when he was just an egg and sold on the black market like a shoeful of eight-legged cocaine. Luckily he was adopted and raised by well-meaning surrogate mother Rubeus Hagrid, and was able to live a long and happy life/reign of terror in the Forbidden Forest. N’aww, I love a happy ending!

The Protomolecule

(The Expanse by James S.A. Corey)

A nameless and faceless molecule (I mean, how dehumanising!), catapulted into our solar system by an alien race millions of years ago. You don’t get more orphanised than that. (Orphanised. That’s a word, right?)

Mr Teatime

(Hogfather by Terry Pratchett)

Jonathan Teatime, an adorably elegant sociopath adopted by the Assassin’s Guild when his parents died of a tragic, ahem, accident when he was a young boy. It was only later that the Assassin’s Guild reflected that perhaps they should have looked into those deaths further . . .

That’s it for this week! Join us again next week for the topic of PEOPLE ON BOATS, and be sure to check out the Tough Travelling tab above for links to my previous posts and fellow travellers!

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Review: 'Midnight Tides' by Steven Erikson

After decades of warfare, the tribes of the Tiste Edur have at last united under the rule of the Warlock King. But peace has been exacted at a terrible price - a pact made with a hidden power whose motives are at best suspect, at worst deadly.

To the south, the expansionist kingdom of Lether has devoured all of its less-civilised neighbours with rapacious hunger. All save one - the Tiste Edur. But Lether is approaching a long-prophesied renaissance - from kingdom and lost colony to Empire reborn - and has fixed its gaze on the rich lands of the Tiste Edur. It seems inevitable that the tribes will surrender, either to the suffocating weight of gold, or to slaughter at the edge of a sword. Or so Destiny has decreed.

A pivotal treaty between the two sides nears - but unknown ancient forces are awakening. For the impending struggle between these two peoples is but a pale reflection of an altogether more profound, primal battle - a confrontation with the still-raw wound of betrayal and the craving for vengeance at its heart.

Midnight Tides marks the third point of the epic triangle that is the Malazan Book of the Fallen. While the first books in the series introduced and then expanded upon events occurring on the two Malazan-occupied continents of Seven Cities and Genabackis, Midnight Tides instead presents us with a brand new continent and an (almost) entirely new cast of characters – a bold risk, yet one that yields substantial reward in the form of a complex yet tightly-woven tale of dark intrigue and tragedy. Although Midnight Tides is the fifth book of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, its story actually takes place chronologically before the events of the first four books, and as such could potentially be a great starting point for newcomers to the series.

Erikson kicks off Midnight Tides in stunning fashion with yet another amazingly cinematic prologue. Outlining the huge-scale historical conflict between three ancient races, he immediately sets the scene by painting a vivid and horrifying picture: of betrayal on an appalling scale, and of the destruction of an entire race, simultaneously foreshadowing future events and introducing with a bang several of the novel’s major themes. A new continent, complete with two major civilisations and a plethora of oppressed subcultures, opens up new opportunities for Erikson to explore themes of expansion and greed, stagnation and tradition, power and empire; all of which have to some extent been underlying themes throughout the series, but are perfectly epitomised here in the conflict between the tribal Tiste Edur and the wealth-centred people of Letheras. Admittedly there are instances where the author painfully belabours the point by occasionally falling into rambling sermons about the evils of capitalism; nonetheless, Midnight Tides does an excellent job of introducing a hefty new chunk of the Malazan saga. Thus begins the story of a nation’s fateful journey into conflict and madness, poignantly symbolised through the hateful yet tragic character of its Emperor.

Despite being filled with a cast of completely new characters and unfamiliar locations, Midnight Tides is actually remarkably easy to follow. Unlike the previous books in the series, which zip about between numerous parallel storylines and often leave casual readers scratching their heads, here the main story boils down to the rising conflict between two factions: the Tiste Edur and the Letherii. Almost all characters fall into one camp or the other, and for the majority of the story Erikson uses their alternating POVs to tell the tale of how these two powerful nations descend into war with one another. Although limited in comparison with other books in the series, the variety of characters gives us radically different perspectives on each of the two warring cultures. The ‘barbaric’ Edur are alternatively shown from the point of view of a nihilistic slave, a morally-conflicted high-born warrior, and a tired Letherii ranger; while the ‘civilised’ Letherii are shown to us through the eyes of a proud kingsguard, an eccentric citizen and a cynical manservant. Each character is interesting in his or her own way, and all of them are used to weave a tapestry of smaller scenes, each as fascinating and as poignant as the main story itself. Indeed, many of the main events would have occurred quite differently were it not for each of these smaller tales: three estranged brothers, a warrior doomed to die a thousand deaths, an entire race deceived into fighting a war on behalf of a malignant entity, a slave’s battle against possession, a merchant’s descent into despair, an abused slave with supernatural powers, and a badly-used noblewoman driven to madness.

Thankfully, Midnight Tides is saved from becoming too bleak by regular infusions of Erikson humour, largely provided by the citizens of Lether. An undead nymphomaniac thief, an absent-minded sorcerer, and a half-giant with an enormous . . . set of lungs are just some of the highlights; and that’s without mentioning the most entertaining aspect of the book, which is without doubt the eccentric pairing of Tehol Beddict and his trusty manservant Bugg. Exceeding even the laugh-out-loud value of previous ‘comedic’ figures like Kruppe and Iskaral Pust, Tehol and Bugg are by far my favourite characters of the series to date, surpassing other spectacular Erikson pairings such as Mappo and Icarium, Gesler and Stormy . . . even Quick Ben and Kalam. The droll humour suffusing Tehol and Bugg’s every interaction is a perfect counterpoint to the dark tragedy unfolding around them, and provides a welcome contrast to characters such as Seren, Trull and Udinaas, who are all rather more serious and isolated within their own unhappiness. Add to this a series of minor characters who, despite being given minimal page time, are just as interesting as some of the major players – Silchas Ruin and Iron Bars, FTW – and you have one of the reasons Midnight Tides is regarded by many as one of the strongest entries in the Malazan series.

Perhaps another reason for this is the sense of place Erikson creates, particularly as much of the novel is set in only two main locations: the Tiste Edur village and the city of Lether. Although the story shifts back and forth between the two, the reader is transported instantly from one world to the next as a result of the fantastically vivid settings. Upon arriving at the Edur village we immediately smell the woodsmoke, hear the waves crash on the beach, feel the incessant rain on our skin and see the ever-present shadow of the Blackwood forest looming over everything. The city of Lether is similarly vivid and well-drawn, in sharp contrast to the Edur village: here, we hear the roaring cheers of the crowd at the Drownings, smell the rubbish-filled canal and rotting alleyways, feel the stifling heat of summer, and see corruption and oppression personified in the displaced victims of the city’s materialistic expansion. And throughout the whole of Midnight Tides is the sense that both societies are a throwback to a much earlier time. In contrast with the Malazan Empire and the cultures shown in earlier novels, neither the Edur nor the Letherii are familiar with the sophisticated magic utilised there: the Letherii mages draw their power from Holds, the primal ancestors of the Warrens used by the Malazans; and instead of the Tarot-esque Deck of Dragons, the Letherii use the Tiles of the Cedance. It’s obvious that this entire continent has lived in isolation from the rest of the world; that, despite their notions of civilisation, both the Edur and the Letherii still have a long way to go . . . and that perhaps each nations’ conviction regarding the superiority of their own empires may soon be tested by conflict with another, more advanced, empire.

This is my second re-read of Midnight Tides, and remembering it as my favourite instalment of the entire series meant that I was kind of worried about revisiting it, particularly after my slightly disappointing experience of Memories of Ice. Thankfully, Midnight Tides managed to meet and even exceed most of my rose-tinted expectations. I’ll admit that the story took a little longer to get going than I remembered, but the rest of the book more than made up for that, particularly the last 200 pages or so. Erikson’s talent at creating jaw-dropping convergences is such that I can’t find the words to praise it highly enough. This book is perhaps the finest example yet of the author’s ability to seamlessly entwine numerous plot threads towards the end of the story: Erikson writes using ever-shortening segments and rapidly-changing POVs to simultaneously quicken the pace and draw out the finale, creating a spectacularly extended denouement of adrenaline-filled action and almost unbearable tension. Is it still my favourite book of the series? I’d say it’s currently vying with Deadhouse Gates for the top spot . . . but of course there are still five more books to go before I can say for sure.


Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Review: 'The Last Wish' by Andrzej Sapkowski

Geralt was always going to stand out, with his white hair and piercing eyes, his cynicism and lack of respect for authority ... but he is far more than a striking-looking man. He's a witcher, with powers that make him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin - his targets are the vile fiends that ravage the land.

As guardian of the innocent, Geralt meets incestuous kings with undead daughters, vengeful djinns, shrieking harpies, lovelorn vampires and despondent ghouls. Many are pernicious, some are wicked, and none are quite as they appear.

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher: a man who has suffered through years of gruelling training and exposure to terrible alchemic mutations in order to become a kick-ass monster hunter, complete with white hair and night vision. The original inspiration for the video game series The Witcher, The Last Wish is made up of six short stories, framed by a series of intermissions wherein Geralt recuperates from one of his battles and muses on both the past and the future.

Having already played the console game The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings  (twice), I enjoyed learning more about the titular character, as well as getting more background knowledge about things referenced in the game, such as how Geralt earned the moniker ‘the Butcher of Blaviken’. One of my favourite aspects of the book was the pervading sense of humour, which is very dry and gives a whole new dimension to the character of Geralt who, in the game, is mostly straight-faced (and, to be honest, a little boring). Book-Geralt is, I’m pleased to say, much more fun to be around.

Despite being the driving influence behind a popular video game series, there is much to distinguish Sapkowski’s world from the myriad other fantasy settings out there. There are no dragons here, no giant spiders or walking skeletons: instead there are rusalkas and kikimoras, strigas and bruxas, djinns and devils. Many of these outlandish beasts – as well as the settings in which their stories take place – are lifted from Slavic mythology, and this Eastern European influence has the wonderful effect of making The Last Wish feel all the more fantastical.

The stories themselves are essentially clever and irreverent subversions of classic fairy tales. This in itself is hardly unique, nor is it the first example of its kind I’ve ever read, but it’s by far the most enjoyable. The original fairy tales themselves, as well as many traditional fantasy tropes, are clearly recognisable yet different, twisted, as though seen through a dark and distorted mirror. Sapkowski’s elves are beautiful and long-lived, yet also narrow-minded, violent and cruel; his priestesses are wise and haughty, but also friendly, helpful and even promiscuous; his kings are corrupt and weak, his princesses are strong and independent, and his great knights are often little more than thugs. Some of his heroes are monsters, and some of his monsters are heroes. Nothing is quite as you expect it to be in Sapkowski’s world, and this sense of the unexpected makes each of the stories a quirky and delightfully unique trip into the unknown.

As with all short story collections, The Last Wish is a bit hit-and-miss, with some stories turning out to be much more enjoyable than others. I particularly liked ‘The Witcher’ and ‘A Grain of Truth’; while others, such as ‘A Question of Price’ and ‘The Edge of the World’, were a bit of a let-down. Despite this, each and every story is written in simple and unassuming prose, which makes for pleasant and easy reading (even if the story itself is occasionally less than captivating). Although some of the stories were considerably less thrilling than others, those I did enjoy I enjoyed immensely, and I look forward to reading more stories set in Sapkowski’s world.