Friday, 1 January 2016

Reading list - 2015

The Weird of the White Wolf - Michael Moorcock

The Elric novels are really quite short (this one being three novellas plus a prologue in 155 pages), so I really should be making my way through them faster than I am. Individually they're all very readable but they're just not gripping me in a way that reflects their importance in both fantasy writing and gaming circles.

I'm slowly getting a sense of Elric's world, which is very much one of uninhibited imagination, and not something that unfortunately seems to happen much in modern fantasy. Tolkein's ascendancy, and perhaps the introduction and influence of RPGs, seems to have made careful worldbuilding the norm, and perhaps something has been lost as a result. In many ways in a world (or universe) sense these books are more in tune with space opera than mainstream fantasy, and that's no bad thing.

The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword, Stormbringer - Michael Moorcock

It could be said that I'm getting lazy in my reviewing, or I could argue that the books are better viewed as a whole! Either way, I'll try and wrap up the last three books in the core of the Elric saga in one.

The saga to me only really finds its place when Theleb K'aarna takes centre stage as the main villain. It might be that Yyrkoon isn't really up to the job, or it might be that with Yyrkoon as the villain then it's still all about Elric, and hence rather too introspective. For a while this brings us a fairly rarified view of the Young Kingdoms, as two of the most powerful sorcerors of the age clash across various realms - for a while this was a setting I could really see myself enjoying.

Eventually K'aarna is defeated and Jagreen Lern sort of becomes the villain, though really at this point Moorcock switches from epic saga to a very wide-angle cosmic struggle as Chaos tries to assert itself completely on Elric's plane. For me the story became too distant to enjoy, or even get much out of. Armies are destroyed and countries revert to the raw stuff of chaos, and the books become an idea rather than a story. Fortunately for me I live on a plane where 50 years of games and books have been written on these foundations, however I've come to the original after the event rather than before and so a lot of the value is lost to me.

So, for the story and ideas in the first two thirds of the saga, well worth a read (the story itself perhaps 3/5, but scope and breadth of ideas a clear 5). Overall I'm glad to have read it, in a way as a box-ticking exercise although that does it a massive injustice, but mostly I'm glad that it was written for everything that has come after.

Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch

Good, but not really up to the standard of the first. To be expected in a way, the first was opening up a whole new fiction, while this is filling in some gaps and adding some depth the ground has already been broken. The plot is interesting enough, but seems to have more of an eye on the next in the series than really trying to deliver a punch - after the first I spent the whole book looking for the twist in the tale and was still left wanting at the end.

A good read happily consumed, that it seems a bit of a letdown is more to do with the strength of the first in the series rather than any weakness with this.

When Gravity Fails - George Alec Effinger

I bought this many years ago, I assume because of its place in Cyperpunk 2020's "appendix N" but didn't get very far with it at the time. 20+ years later and with rather broader horizons I enjoyed it, but equally due to the passage of time it's lost some of the ground-breaking quality which made it so highly regarded.

It's fascinating to see aspects of cyberpunk translated to an un-named Middle Eastern city with an Algerian hustler as the protagonist rather the high-tech US and Far Eastern cities we're used to seeing. The plot is satisfying enough, although without quite the tension I imagine was meant to be generated towards the end.

To me one of the most impressive aspects was how true the protagonist was to himself rather than beng a vehicle for the plot, and how well such an unfamiliar setting is conveyed. If it has a weakness it's that the impact on society of moddies and daddies - personality-altering technology - is never fully explored.

The Last Light of the Sun - Guy Gavriel Kay

I really enjoy what I've read of Kay's history-inspired fantasies. This one combines Celts, Vikings, sidhe and King Alfred to good effect, not only giving an emotive, deep and believable viewpoint of three cultures but importantly set into a good story with some great twists. The only downside being that I felt the need to make notes while reading it for further research later, so slowing me down, which can't really be blamed on the author!

Thoroughly recommended.

The Whale Road - Robert Low

Really very good - I'd add this to the "read this, then run a Viking campaign" list. A very convincing view into the world of the Vikings - you get the feeling that Robert Low has done his research, which he shows off with his narrative without force-feeding it to the reader. The protaganist, Orm, starts off wide-eyed and naive, and so is a great conduit for this early on. One of my few critisisms of the book is that he seems to grow in compentance rather too quickly, which makes the ending a bit less believable, but this doesn't really detract from the book. And it also sets us up nicely for the next in the series, which I'll be buying in the near future.

One other minor critisism is that there's clearly a point towards the end of the book where Orm is protected by nothing other than plot armour, but I'm prepared to let this go with just a raised eyebrow. And my last quibble is how far-sighted Orm is at times. The book is told as a memoir, so it's fair that it can be narrated with a wisdom beyond what he probably had as a raw youth, however you sometimes feel the advantage of the author's extra thousand years of perspective more than you probably should.

Back onto the good stuff - as well as a sense of the physical place and time that the Vikings lived and fought through, there's a real sense of the spiritual place. The characters emphatically believe in their gods and portents, and so fit into their world absolutely. Definitely some lessons in there for roleplayers from a more cynical (or wiser?) age. And in the interests of keeping this short one last highlight that I'll mention is how it makes you realise what an interesting (and overlooked, at least when I was at school) period of history this is. There's the conflict between Christianity and older religions, the sheer size and importance of Byzantium, and eastern Europe isn't just a series of invaders from further east (although equally those were significant factors in their history).

To end with my favourite quote, from Orm's first voyage (with the crew carefully avoiding the coast of Wessex) - "... we kept to the solitary inlets and lit fires only when we were sure there was no one for miles. Nowhere was safe for a boatload of armed men from the Norway viks". Who wouldn't want to play in that campaign?!

The Man of Gold - M.A.R. Barker

I sort of see what all the fuss is about - Tekumel is a breath of interesting and alien air. It has that same feeling of somewhere you'd like to find out more about that Middle Earth exudes, but can be hard to grasp at times as well. In a strange way this is a credit to Barker as a novelist - he introduces people, creatures and gods by showing rather than explaining, but with the sheer volume of these, and their unfamiliar names, its rather hard to keep track of.

A few quibbles - because that's the sort of reader that I am...

Given that most of the reason Harsan's the centre of the plot is the ancient knowledge imparted to him early in the story, it's rather unsatisfying that in the end he is reliant on a massive coincidence / plot device.

Also given the prestige and enormous riches that tomb raiding can bring it's rather hard to accept that the slum-dwellers who live practically on top of such a resource could be prevented mostly by social mores (even in such a hidebound society) from making an industry of it. Instead they just dabble enough to help the plot along.

With iron being rare and valuable - as in Kelewan (which was apparently modelled on Tekumel) - why aren't weapons made primarily of bronze, or why haven't alternatives such as stone impact weapons found a niche? Instead they make swords out of leather... I get that swords are cool, especially if, as with Feist and Wurts, you're writing about pseudo-Samurai, but this really jars with me (maybe it's that degree in Materials Science). According to Jeff Dee's Béthorm cured Chlén hide "has the hardness almost of aircraft plastic". That just doesn't cut it (pun intended, sorry!). I'm not having a go at Jeff here, this is the source material he's working with, it's just I happen to have his very comprehensive work as a reference point.

A good and horizon-expanding novel, and I'll be seeking out the follow-up Flamesong at some point fairly soon. But it'd have been better still with some footnotes.

Plague Daemon - Brian Craig

Prompted by Orlygg's book club plan I picked up a copy of Plague Daemon - it's OK, but not a patch on its predecessor. It has its moments, and there are some good smatterings of grim - Humbold's fate being one such - but the Border Princes aren't really somewhere you'd live by choice and Harmis is a far less engaging protagonist than Orfeo was in the first book.

It's also a bit clumsy in places - having established that Harmis isn't the chatty type he then launches into some lengthy dialogues early on for the sake of exposition, and having further established that users of magic are not trusted his companion Averil then rides past crowds of terrified refugees while waving around a magic glowing stick without any apparent negative reaction...

Overall though it does a good job of conveying the setting, and is an readable if not compelling journey through what was (at the time) an interesting but fairly neglected area of the Old World (meriting a bare half page in the WFRP rulebook) and gives a new slant on Nurgle and the followers of chaos more generally (spoiler - there's a plague deamon in the story!).

I'm left hoping the third in the trilogy is better.

The Pagan Lord - Bernard Cornwell

I picked this up on a whim at my local library and was glad I did. I wouldn't rate it quite as highly as The Last Light of the Sun or The Whale Road, but it may just be that I need a break from Saxons and Danes. The sense of place doesn't come across quite as well as in those two novels, but Cornwell can really write. Halfway through the book the narrator attacks Bebbanburg (his ancestoral home, from which he's been dispossessed). You know he's not going to die, there being half a book to go, but I could barely turn the pages for the tension.

Some useful gameable themes come through - the wildness (emptiness) of even a fairly populated corner of Europe, meaning that a few boatloads of armed men can set them selves up somewhere out of the way and be fairly safe. Equally a hundred or so armed men can ride through fairly heavily populated country and as long as they keep moving aren't going to be bothered.

And also (again) the themes of reputation, and the ability to say "fight me, or do what I say". But conversely the difficulty of getting a modern, worldly gamer to really react in the character of the time. Will they know the culture enough to challenge to Holmgang on the spur of the moment, or go to their certain death with only one care - to not lose grip on their sword?

It's also interesting to read the actual history of the time after reading the book (fairly superficially, Wikipedia in this case). The official accounts go "the king did ..." but actually it's quite plausible that, as in the book, a thegn with a reputation and agenda of their own did a thing, if it works then the history books give credit where the scribe feels is politic, if they fail then it's on their own head.

As I was reading I gathered the impression that it was a part of a series, due to the frequent references to backstory. It turns out to be the seventh of the Saxon Stories. I'm glad to have picked this one up rather than an earlier one, as it deals with the much less well-trodden story of the time after Alfred. I can't see myself going back to read the first six, but may well look out for the next.

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

Humm, what to say about this one? Perhaps to start with that for the second half at least I found it hard to put down, which has to be a recommendation. Also that I clearly need to read more from non-Western authors (especially with my ongoing interest in Tekumel - on the subject of which it was interesting to note that clan houses make a passing appearance here), a lot of what I've read recently has been rather too far inside my comfort zone, this was in many places a fascinating breath of fresh air.

The story can be viewed on a couple of levels, the first as a memoir of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during WWII from the point of view of a privileged (but compromised) civilian. As such it's educational from a cultural point of view, less so from a historical point of view and not too grim reading (on my personal scale where Stalingrad is an 11 this is probably a 4). It is very downbeat though, Philip's view back on his life is not exactly happy, although longer and less miserable than it might have been!

On a further level the book delves into the spiritual side of martial arts and the past lives of Philip and Endo-san. I found this oddly jarring - while I felt that a similar presenting-as-fact the mystical side of Guy Gavriel Kay's version of Byzantium added to those novels, here it seemed out of place, I think because The Gift of Rain is set so much closer to the present. But the same justification exists in both instances: people did (and still do) believe in the world as presented here so it's really my own issue as a reader than any problem with the novel.

There were a few other places where my suspension of disbelief was challenged. Firstly the question of whether Philip really could have lived 50+ years on Penang after the war (although this contradiction is presented front-and-centre a few times in the book, so I really should go along with its version of things). Secondly, the youth of the narrator during the main events of the book - Philip's in his mid-to-late teens as the book begins and so his early 20s as the war ends. However other than the earliest scenes there is no real sense of his age, despite the fact that it must be relevant to his actions and how he is viewed. This again may be my comfortable 21st Century point of view - as Philip himself points out he's older than a lot of the Allied troops who eventually liberate Penang. Or equally it may be that, with the memoir narrated by Philip in his 70s, that sense of youth is blurred or forgotten.

Anyway, well worth a read, and to me a reminder to broaden my horizons.


  1. The BBC just did an adaptation of the first two novels in that Cornwell series. It lost focus here and there but on the whole it was good fun.

    1. Thanks for the feedback - always good (and somewhat surprising!) to see that someone's reading my ramblings :)

      I mostly enjoyed the TV series, which gave some good insights to the character. In the book I read Uthred's position of someone who's wanted in a fight but otherwise not well regarded despite his high rank is already established but (quite reasonably at that point in the series) not really explained. So it's good to see the backstory, and also impressive to see the confidence of Cornwell as a writer in creating a protagonist who's so genuinely flawed.

    2. I have added a couple of these to my reading list, so I should be thanking you!

      (Or not, given the state of my reading pile!)