The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Just before Christmas J and I went to see the new Hobbit film. The rest of this post is pretty spoilery (and doesn’t include a plot summary so may not make much sense if you haven’t seen the film yet). The unspoilery version is “it was good! you should probably go see it! (providing you like such films)” πŸ™‚

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on post page:

I’ll start briefly with the techy side of it – this time we saw the high frame rate 3D version, rather than the IMAX one. When we saw the first Hobbit film (post) it was a little spoilt by us being seated right under one of the rear speaker stacks, so that was part of why we avoided the IMAX showing. The other reason was that during some of the faster moving sequences in the last one like the goblin sequence we thought it was a bit blurry. That wasn’t an issue with any of the bits in this film, so I think the HFR version was worth going for. Although it did look a touch unreal – I’d forgotten that was a common thing said about HFR films, so it was niggling at me during the film, but J said he got used to it pretty quick (given he was expecting it). It still niggles at me a bit coz it doesn’t make sense that it should look unreal but there you go.

Moving on to the film – the dragon Smaug was awesome πŸ˜€ I particularly loved the scene where Bilbo is in the hoard and first figures out just how big Smaug is. Some of the chase segments afterwards did feel a bit contrived, but I think I buy into the idea that the dragon was playing with his food – he did seem to have that sort of personality, particularly after the “you can’t fool me” conversation with Bilbo in the hoard. I did wonder what the dwarves were thinking, trying to kill a fire breathing dragon with molten gold – surely neither heat nor gold should cause him a problem. Maybe they hoped he’d drown? Maybe they were just clutching at straws …

I guess one of the tough things about adapting the Hobbit for a modern audience is that Tolkein didn’t bother to write any female characters into the story, and Peter Jackson et al have clearly decided not to gender flip any of the existing characters. So for the last film Galadriel gets a speaking part so there’s at least one woman, and in this one we have Tauriel the wood elf. In some ways it’s a shame she gets tacked on as “the love interest”, but I don’t think it’s entirely as shallow as it seems on the surface. She’s the only elf we see that sees past her people’s prejudice against dwarves to treat any of them as people, and I think blindness/seeing is one of the things this part of the story is about. She also isn’t a damsel in distress needing rescuing – she’s the one who goes out to shoot the orcs threatening the dwarves, and not just in her own lands but chasing them across the route the dwarves travel. She saves Kili’s life, rather than him rescuing her.

I think Gandalf (again) gets one of the lines that states a theme of the film – “We have been blind, and that has let the Enemy come back” (possibly not the exact words, I’m writing this a week after seeing the film). He says this just after he and Radagast realise that the Necromancer is more than just a rumour, and just before he goes into the orc stronghold that’s under a spell to cloud one’s sight. But it fits into a wider context than that – he also says it after he’s not followed up on Bilbo being awfully … odd about something he found earlier. We know it’s the Ring, and Peter Jackson et al have the advantage here in adapting the Hobbit as a true prequel to the Lord of the Rings rather than retro-fitting it into the story like Tolkein did. We know what that ring is, and we know where this is going – and in not following it up, going instead to do “more important things” is Gandalf being blind again, and allowing the Enemy another step on the way to victory. And to narrow the context again – even in this film alone we see Gandalf setting things in motion (setting Thorin off on this path, leaving the dwarves & hobbit to their own devices) that ultimately end in Smaug waking up and flying off to burn Laketown. Bilbo, of course, gets the final word on that – “what have we done!”.

I think Thorin gets fewer framed hero shots than before, and his flaws are highlighted more than I remember them being in the first film. He still believes (mistakenly) that he’s the hero of this story, and we see where that gets him – he’s too proud to bargain with the wood elves, he’s willing to dangle promises in front of people to do what he wants even when it’s not in their interests. He sends others in to do his dirty work, or sends them away if they’re not useful any more, without caring about them as other than tools. If it wasn’t for Bilbo he wouldn’t’ve got anywhere, let alone as far as he’s got – but when Bilbo’s running from Smaug all Thorin cares about is whether he’s got the Arkenstone. (We don’t see if he did or not, so I’m assuming he did – he never tells Thorin he doesn’t have it, he just doesn’t tell him he does).

It’s been a long time since I last read the book, so I can’t really remember what’s been changed – though I’m told that it’s rather a lot. Other than Tauriel I did notice that Bard gets more (any?) of a role at this point of the story, rather than appearing after Smaug has been set free. And the sequence with Beorn wasn’t quite what I remembered either. Still I’m not so attached to the book that I mind it being retold in a different way πŸ™‚

As I said at the start of this post – it was good! πŸ™‚

“Enchanted Glass” Diana Wynne Jones

History lecturer Andrew Brandon Hope has just inherited his grandfather’s house and field of care – but at the beginning of this book neither he nor we have any idea what the latter really entails. About a year later, as he’s beginning to settle into the house 12 year old Aidan Cain turns up on his doorstep. Aidan’s grandmother has just died & she’d told him if he was ever in trouble he should go to Andrew’s grandfather – so here he is. The rest of the story revolves around Andrew’s field of care, Aidan’s parentage, and the magic they both have (but that Andrew had forgotten due to being concerned with being a grown-up).

This book was published in 2010, the year before Diana Wynne Jones’s death, and I don’t think I’d realised before that she was still writing as recently as that. She was one of my favourite authors when I was a kid but I never ended up buying many of her books because they were all in the school library. In fact I think I only own Archer’s Goon, but my favourites were the Chrestomanci books and Homeward Bounders. I was actually looking in the children’s section of the library to see if Homeward Bounders was on the shelf, but this was the only one of hers that was there – so I picked it up coz I’d not read it before.

If I’d been the right age for the book, I’d’ve loved it – as an adult it felt a little too pat at times and everything wrapped up rather easily. Which is not a criticism as such, just an acknowledgement it’s a children’s book I’m reading without the rosy glow of nostalgia πŸ™‚ The tone of the book is fairly light-hearted – most of the secondary characters are broadly drawn & comic. And the antagonist is just sinister enough that you can tell, without being truly scary.

Which all sounds like it wasn’t a good book, but it was – it was a lot of fun to read. I liked the dopplegangers with one from the fairy world & the human world. I liked the servants Andrew inherits along with the house – a housekeeper and a gardener, a comic pair who’re quite determined to make sure that Andrew behaves as they think he should, but also both have their roles to play in the events of the plot. Amusingly both surnamed Stock, as are many in the village, it’s almost as if it’s full of stock types … πŸ˜‰ The one thing I didn’t entirely like was the final reveal about Aidan’s father – it felt like it grew out of the story, in that the clues were all there, but the relationship it implied it didn’t sit well with me.

So overall, fun, but probably better if you’re 10 or 11 years old.

“Black Feathers” Joseph D’Lacey

Joseph D’Lacey’s book Black Feathers is set part in a world just sideways to our own, and partly in the future of that world. The “present day” parts follow Gordon as he grows up to the cusp of puberty then has to learn to live in & deal with the dystopian & crumbling society of 2013’s Britain – a world that’s like but not like our own, where the sinister Ward have taken over the role that the police & the government should be playing. The future follows Megan, again a child on the verge of becoming an adult. Her poor but idyllic sounding childhood ends as she’s called to be apprenticed to Mr Keeper, a shaman-like figure who remembers the story of the Black Dawn & the coming of the Bright Day. Gordon & Megan’s stories are interlinked – most prominently through the figure of the Crowman. Venerated, worshipped and feared in Megan’s day, he’s just whispered about as a shadowy figure in Gordon’s time and somehow Gordon is linked to him. There’s something dreamlike about the story, which seems appropriate to both Megan’s initiation into mysteries & Gordon’s search for the Crowman. It’s a dark & twisted dream, tho – gruesome and unpleasant things happen – and it’s not clear if ultimately it’s going to come to a good or a bad end.

I’m … not sure what I think of this book. I started off really liking it, but somewhere along the way I forgot that it was the first part of a series (a duology I think) and then it just kinda stopped. There’s not much in the way of resolution to either story thread and yet I wasn’t really left wanting to find out what happened next – I’d sort of run out of enthusiasm for it. Like somehow I thought the idea only had legs for one book’s length and now I’m left thinking “oh, there’s another whole book to fill?”.

There’s stuff I did like – the ambiguity of the Crowman for instance. The things the characters say imply ultimately he (it?) is a force for or personification of something good or at least mostly beneficial even if not in ways that humanity can always comprehend. But the way the narrative shows him to the reader is as much darker and twisted, I’m not sure if there’s anything “good” about the Crowman at all. But equally he’s set against the Ward, who are definitely not good at all – they’re a menacing caricature of secret police that don’t seem to have any redeeming features at all. So this is not a face off between good & evil, but it is a face off with evil.

But overall, I’m not sure what I think. And I suspect by the time the next book is published next year I’ll’ve forgotten about the series.

“Limits of Power” Elizabeth Moon

Limits of Power is the fourth in Elizabeth Moon’s five book series Paladin’s Legacy. It’s a sequel series to a trilogy she wrote in the late 80s collectively called The Deed of Paksenarrion. They’re secondary world fantasy of a sort that is indebted to Tolkein and/or D&D – i.e. there are elves, dwarves, gnomes, dragons, the tech level is pre-industrial revolution, there are gods (of various types) who exist in some tangible sense, and magic of a variety of sorts. The original trilogy follows the story of a sheepfarmer’s daughter called Paksenarrion who joins a mercenary group, and gradually discovers that she is called to serve as a Paladin of Gird. It’s one of my favourite series of books. There’s a duology written afterwards that are set centuries before Paksenarrion’s day, about Gird – whilst he was of god-like status by Paks’s time he began life as an ordinary mortal man, and these two books are his story and the origin story of the main human society in the Paks trilogy.

Paladin’s Legacy is set after the end of The Deed of Paksenarrion, and as the name suggests it’s the working out of the consequences of the events of the Deed. It’s difficult to talk about any of the actual plot happenings in this book without spoilers, being the fourth book in an ongoing series, so I think I won’t try. Unlike the trilogy, which is all from Paks’s point of view, these books are from a variety of viewpoints. Also unlike the trilogy these characters are mostly older. One of the themes running through the books of Paladin’s Legacy so far is of the past catching up with people – people’s family or heritage becoming suddenly important after years spent living some other life whether through choice or necessity. And of people in their middle years or older facing up to change or to new circumstances. And the broader world is too – magic that hasn’t been seen for years starts popping up, other races that are thought to be legend show themselves. The consequences of events from Gird’s time & before coming home to roost. And people having to face up to duties or responsibilities they wouldn’t’ve asked for.

I read this book in an afternoon, and I suspect I’ll get more out of it the next time I read it – this time was to gallop through & find out what happened to everyone. I think once I have the fifth book (next year I guess) I’ll have to go back to the beginning & read them all again πŸ™‚

“King’s Dragon” Kate Elliott

King’s Dragon is the first book in Kate Elliott’s seven book Crown of Stars series. I’m pretty sure I read the first few a longish time ago (this one was first published in 97 so there’s a lot of scope for “longish” time here). And then I must’ve caught up with publication or something & lost track and never finished them. A mention somewhere (, perhaps?) reminded me that I vaguely remembered liking them so I should give the series another go. Glad I did, I really enjoyed this one – now I just have to decide if I’m going to buy them or get the rest from the library one by one.

(Please no spoilers for the rest of the series, I’m enjoying figuring this one out as it goes along.)

The world they’re set in is not ours nor is it a one-to-one analogue of ours, but it’s flavoured by English history – it partly reminds me of the Anarchy (the 12th Century English civil war), and partly of Anglo-Saxon England in the time of the Viking raids. There’s a religion that’s analogous to Christianity, with a saviour figure that died for mankind in some sense. A major difference is that instead of God the Father, there’s Our Lord and Our Lady – and the two have equal billing. This is extrapolated through the society, women have a much better place in this world than in the analogous medieval England. In particular women can be biscops (analogous to bishops) and perhaps that’s only women that can be, I’m not sure – the two we see most are. Women can also inherit titles & crowns in their own right with no questions about ability. They go to war as soldiers too. There’s even a respected (although not mainstream for the kingdom we’re in) strand of thinking that inheritance should pass solely down the female line because it ensures you know the heir is a true heir.

Inheritance to the throne is also interesting in that it requires fertility – when the monarch’s children get to adulthood one will be sent out on an heir’s progress for a year, and will only become heir if they get pregnant or get a woman pregnant during that year. The central political conflict in this book hinges on that – Sabella, the King’s sister, went out on her heir’s progress first but failed to become pregnant. Henry got a bastard son on his subsequent heir’s progress and has inherited the throne. Now Sabella is raising a rebellion against him (as she finally has a child). Another of the conflicts in the book also has this custom as its starting point – the King’s favourite child is his bastard son who proved his fertility, yet that son cannot inherit only the subsequent legitimate children can do that.

The characters whose eyes we see all this through aren’t the major players in the political dance. Instead one of the central characters is Alain, a bastard child destined for the church. He’s brought up in a village, by the man he believes to be his father, and while he yearns for adventure his path seems set. And over the course of the book it feels like it would’ve been a good path for him – there’s something a bit saintlike about him (although he’s also still a very realistic boy), he’s paid attention to the teachings of the church & tries his best to follow them, particularly where compassion is concerned. But he gets caught up in the chaos of both the rebellion, and the raids by the non-human Eika. Being a bastard child he seems set to be The Chosen One whose origins aren’t what they seem & one of the suggested “true stories” of his birth seems to be validated by events towards the end of the book. But I’m not sure that’s the true answer – it feels like Elliott is doing something more clever to play with the trope than that.

The other central character is Liath. Her father is a sorcerer – magic is real in this world, and perhaps forbidden by the church depending on which bit of the church you ask. Actually that’s something else I like about this story, “the church” is not a monolith – it has schisms & heresies & councils that decide on what’s orthodox & what’s not and so on. Anyway, Liath has been on the run with her father since early childhood after her mother died, and her story opens with her father’s death. Liath doesn’t have much coherent idea about who her parents are/were nor why they’re on the run – but clearly someone or something was after them. I felt a bit like her father should’ve told her more because he should’ve realised his death was a high risk, but the justification of protecting her through her ignorance does seem realistic. Liath is initially sold into slavery, as she can’t pay her father’s debts (well, it’s engineered so that this is the case). She’s another Chosen One archetype and again Elliott isn’t retreading the well worn path with this story – for instance when Liath meets a man who fits the mentor slot she doesn’t trust him because of what’s gone before. The Eagles, the branch of the King’s army/messengers that Liath & her friend Hanna join, feel like a more realistic version of Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. No telepathic spirit horses, no special mind powers and most importantly no sudden spiritual healing and family-formation to make up for the abuses of the joiner’s childhood. But nonetheless there’s something reminiscent about them.

There’s a host of secondary characters as well, both male & female. All the characters in the book felt like people to me, but there’s some that stand out as a second tier of protagonists. There’s Hanna, Liath’s friend who also joins the Eagles. There’s Rosvita, a cleric who is perhaps an analogue of the Venerable Bede or Geoffrey of Monmouth – certainly now she’s in her old age she’s writing a history of the country. And there’s also Sanglant, bastard son of the King, whose origins we know are otherworldly from the prologue. That prologue also sets up an expectation that he & Alain and Liath are somehow in opposition – agents of different otherworldly factions. But so far the pawns don’t seem to be quite marching to their master’s tunes. Again I think Elliott is setting up the “standard” tropes of epic fantasy and then doing something much more interesting with them.

And now I really want to know where the story is going. Best decide on buy or borrow first though! πŸ™‚

“Blackbirds” Chuck Wendig

Miriam Black can tell when you’re going to die. She’d actually rather not know, but it only takes a bit of skin on skin contact and she knows when, of what and maybe a bit of where. A nicely packaged vision that only takes a couple of seconds real time but lasts for as long as it needs to to show her the details.

The book opens with Miriam waiting for an unpleasant specimen of a man to die in a motel room so she can rifle through his wallet and take enough money to get a few more dinners & a few more motel rooms. This is how she lives, hitch-hiking around the US, surviving rather than living. She’s got a foul mouth and an attitude and underneath the bluster she’s broken but she’ll be damned if she lets anyone else see. The story is told both moving forward from the opening scene and through a series of flashbacks & dreams & other people’s stories. Miriam meets a trucker (who she actually likes, not a common occurrence) who’ll die in a particularly gruesome murder with her name on his lips – the climax of the thriller plot line. And a con man who has a proposition for her, and who isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The flashbacks & dreams tell us how Miriam got here, why she’s broken & on the road and give hints as to how her power works & where it came from (as far as she knows).

One thing I liked about this book is the gender flipping of a couple of clichΓ©s. Most obvious is Louis the trucker as the damsel in distress and murder victim, with Miriam trying to figure out if she can stop it happening. Louis is also the catalyst for Miriam to become more actively engaged with her life again rather just drifting along waiting for death – in a “redeemed by the love of a good woman” sort of way (Louis is the “good woman” here, in case I’m not clear). Also notable, Miriam’s got a troubled past (well, duh) but Wendig avoids the clichΓ© of rape. The bad shit that did happen to her feels appropriate for what it’s done to her, and thematically appropriate for the story rather than “woman with trauma, must’ve been rape”.

While the story is satisfyingly complete in itself there’s a sequel and there’s definitely hooks for a wider story. Miriam figures out more of the rules of her powers by the climax of the story. There’s also a (gruesome) scene where she talks to a psychic to try & learn more about her power – she doesn’t get answers but it’s clear that there’s something there to learn. Which kinda sums up that side of it for the reader too – we don’t know any more than Miriam, but it’s clear that Wendig knows where he’s going with this.

I liked this book a lot. It’s pretty dark, but with a current of optimism running through it. I thought Miriam’s cynicism was clearly presented as part of how she’s broken rather than the truth of the world. And the ending holds out hope that she might be able to make her own world better. It’s a fairly gruesome book tho – I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re easily disturbed by written descriptions. I’m squeamish myself, but when reading I’ve perfected the art of Not Visualising things so books (including this one) are generally OK. But there’s stuff in this that I’d not want to see in a film.

“A Memory of Light” Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson

The end of the Wheel of Time. Something I wasn’t quite sure would ever happen – not just because Robert Jordan died (although obviously that put a spanner in the works until they organised Brandon Sanderson to finish it off using Jordan’s notes), but also because the series seemed to get a bit out of control in the middle (books 8-10 in my opinion). But here it is, book 14 and The End. And Sanderson has done a bloody good job of writing 3 books by Robert Jordan (if that makes sense).

The first few paragraphs of this post are looking back over the series as a whole and are spoiler free, later there are massive spoilers for book 14 so read past the spoiler warning at your own risk.

The overall plot of the series is the quintessential epic fantasy plot – farmboy discovers he’s the chosen one who will save the world from evil. And Jordan takes that simple structure and makes something more complex and more real feeling out of it. For instance there are prophecies, as you’d expect, but some of them are wrong. Some of them are twisted by repetition through history into something that no longer resembles the truth, even tho they were true prophecy. Some of them are true, but not how you’d expect. Some of them are prophecies for the other side’s victory. None of them are intuitively obvious and true at first glance.

Another example is magic use – and obviously our farmboy is capable of using it and needs to use it, but the source of power for men is tainted by the evil he’s going to fight and will send him mad. And that doesn’t just have implications for him personally, it’s been like that for over three thousand years and the societies of the world are shaped by the knowledge that eventually a male channeller will go mad and will be capable of unleashing unspeakable destruction when he does.

Something Jordan does well is creating an actual world for this all to take place in. The area the action takes place in (the Westlands) is vaguely Renaissance Europe in culture – a patchwork of kingdoms and city states of various sizes, mostly but not all monarchies. All with superficially the same culture, but with differences. The various leaders bicker & posture & argue about relatively petty details – the world might be ending but it’s still politics as usual. It’s not even like most people believe the world is about to end until it gets pretty late on in the story. This area isn’t the whole world, either – there are other cultures like the Aiel (a desert warrior culture who regard wetlanders as weak) or the Seanchan who invade from over the sea because they believe themselves to be the true rulers of the Westlands due to descent from a colony sent out by a King who ruled a thousand years ago. And their prophecies back that up.

Having all these different cultures and factions within them means that nothing ever goes smoothly – even when everyone’s trying to communicate there are misunderstandings because of alien viewpoints. And just about everyone thinks that their place of origin does things right and everyone else is misguided at best and should be educated in the proper way of doing things, which obviously causes friction. Even within a culture people bring their own history and experience along with them, and their own blindspots. It feels real, even though (because?) it also occasionally makes you want to shake people and tell them to stop being so stupid. The Aes Sedai (the organised female magic users) in particular fall into this category – they are generally arrogantly sure they know exactly how things should be done and sometimes their manipulations just make things worse.

It’s not just the characters on the side of the Light who argue amongst themselves and find it hard to agree on a common goal let alone focus on it. The characters on the side of the Dark are even worse – as you’d expect, really. I think a large part of the characterisation of evil in the story is that it’s a desire for personal power. The characters of the Light might want power but those that do generally want to use it to do good or to shape society in a way they think will be good for people (although frequently the theory & practice of what is good don’t match up terribly well). But the major players on the side of the Dark, the Forsaken, want power to make their own lives better and revel in the idea that this is at the cost of other people’s lives & happiness.

It’s certainly not without it’s flaws. As I said above the story gets somewhat carried away with itself in the middle. Part of this is down to point-of-view creep. The series starts off with a few people whose eyes we see through, and gradually more & more are added as events take place in different places. If I was asked to name the primary characters of the series as a whole I’d list half a dozen immediately and then there’s another half a dozen or so to consider if they’re primary or not, and several more who’re definitely not primary characters but are still pretty important. And the net result feels like Jordan ended up with too many balls to juggle, and too many things he thought were too important to skip over. But in book 11 (the last one Jordan wrote) he pulls it back together and re-focuses the story, and from there on they feel big because there’s a lot of story rather than a lot of padding.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

I’m not kidding, if you haven’t read the whole series don’t read any further – there’s stuff that happens in book 14 that’s worth coming to unspoilt. The rest of this is going to be a bit more stream of consciousness reactions to the book itself.

I liked the way that the last battle both was & wasn’t important in terms of the actual conflict with the Dark One. I mean, really what was important was Rand & the Dark One outside the Pattern with their almost philosophical debate creating visions (proof-of-concept models) of the way the world would be afterwards. And then Rand managing to use the One Power & the True Power to remake the Pattern to seal in the Dark One rather than just patch it up. But if there had been no battle going on, then the Dark forces could’ve interrupted that conflict, so the battle had its purpose.

I was a bit confused by the body switch at the end, but I think from reading other commentary (in particular posts associated with Leigh Butler’s re-read of the whole series on that I’ve mostly suffered from having not re-read everything just before reading this book as well as just reading this one too fast. Basically I think the mingling between Moridin & Rand was starting to happen already. Moridin is by this stage practically an avatar of the Dark One and he is killed as (or before?) the Dark One is sealed up, and Rand’s soul is pretty much in both bodies by that point. And his original body is more damaged, so that dies & he remains in Moridin’s body.

I liked how Rand pretty much becomes an avatar of the Creator in the conflict at the end, and that this stays in some ways once he is back in the Pattern. And it’s good that he “dies” as far as the general population is concerned, much more chance of him enjoying life – he’s done his bit, he should be able to retire in peace. Rather tough for people like his father though.

It was a bit of a surprise that Demandred really had been off somewhere on his “own” for the last 13 books, but once he appears to lead the Dark forces in the last battle I liked the way his desire not to play second fiddle to the Dragon again has warped his plans. I also liked the fact that he really is as badass as he thinks he is – Gawyn goes to duel him, and loses, Galad ditto. And then Lan, and Lan only wins by the one move Demandred wouldn’t’ve anticipated because Demandred wouldn’t conceive of winning a fight at the expense of one’s own life. (Well, Lan survives, but only barely.)

I spent a chunk of the first half of the book thinking “it’s all going awfully smoothly … this can’t be right”, but I still didn’t anticipate the generals being under a subtle Compulsion to just make lots of sub-optimal decisions. Now that was an insidious and sneaky plan. And in retrospect I can see the signs were there through the bit where I was wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.

One thing that the cast of hundreds turned out to be good for is that once the last battle got under way and people started dying they were people I cared about rather than just Footsoldier A or a high level view of Army A taking losses. In terms of main character death the body count isn’t all that large, but I thought those that happened were well done. After Gawyn dies I wasn’t too surprised that Egwene also died. And she went out in a blaze of glory, doing as much as she could without worrying about the price she would pay. And that just fits so well with her character & her story through the whole series. And you could see in the scenes with the treaty how Egwene & Rand between them were the centres of the forces & peoples on the side of the Light – balanced and needing to work together despite their differences. Which ties into one of the major themes of the series, after all, so it also seems fitting (from a story telling perspective) that as far as the world is concerned they both died saving the world.

I’m looking forward to re-reading this once I get to it in my giant re-read of all the fiction. And by then the paperback should be out so I’ll have my own copy not just a library book.

“Shadow of Night” Deborah Harkness

This is the sequel to “A Discovery of Witches” which I read a while ago (but haven’t written up anywhere). It took me a little while to get back into this world & story. The basic premise is that creatures live among us – witches, vampires & daemons. Witches are magic workers, as you’d expect, and it breeds true in families. Vampires drink blood, are immortal and must be made by another vampire, but the rest of the legends (like inability to walk in daylight) aren’t true. Daemons appear to be more complicated (can be born to human families, even), and are very creative & erratic – in this book Christopher Marlowe is a daemon. The creatures are ruled over by the Congregation, with rules about fraternisation between creature types and rules intended to keep them secret from ordinary humans.

The plot is about Diana Bishop (a witch & historian) and Matthew Clairmont (a vampire), a mysterious book and the origins of creatures. The first book was the two of them meeting, falling in love, marrying, finding the book & figuring out there was something big going on. In this book they’ve travelled back into the past so that Diana can learn how to use her powers away from the dangers in the present. They go back to 1590 and slot into Matthew’s life at that time, but obviously it’s not all plain sailing. First Diana has to learn to fit in with Elizabethan life, and then they get caught up in bits of the politics (both human and creature) of the day. There was some handwave about how present-day-Matthew’s arrival in the past meant that past-Matthew vanished for the duration (and presumably will be back once they’ve left), which just serves to leave me wondering if he’d have a hole in his memory afterwards? Or memories from the wrong Matthew? Or of the things he would’ve done if not displaced? Paradox is one of the things that’s a thread running through this book – each section of the story ends with a chapter set back in the present day as little ripples run up through time. Finding miniatures Hilliard painted of the two of them, finding a day book Diana wrote etc. And it’s clear by the end of the book that they’d always gone back to 1590 and lived there for months, but it’s also clear that this isn’t the way it was when the book started … probably.

The thing I’m not keen on in these books is the relationship between the two main characters. It’s all told from Diana’s point of view and I just don’t see what she sees in Matthew. He treats her like a child in many ways, ordering her around, telling her she doesn’t know enough to keep herself safe. And he’s so much older than her, and in 1590 is close to the centre of both creature & human politics, that he’s right too. She’s stumbling through a time period she only knows from books (she is a historian tho, and this is her time period of interest, so she’s better off than the average witch would be). And she’s not a trained witch yet (for complicated reasons). And their marriage is forbidden by the Congregation (as a general thing, not specifically this witch & this vampire). But even when she asserts herself he’s still dismissive – for example, she married him during the last book, she’s insistent she wants to be his wife and has first hand knowledge of the risk but wants it anyway. And still he spends half this book keeping her at arms length, mostly because he doesn’t really think she knows what she’s doing. But equally, he’s the one who actually gets them into most of the trouble they get into in this book. He rushes in without a plan and without giving anyone quite enough information, time after time. An example of this is that he plans for them to go back to 1590, and neglects to tell her who his friends in that time are or what his occupation is. And she’s the one who improvises the way back out of trouble when his lack of plan causes problems. She’s the one who finds herself a teacher after his attempts backfire. So why can’t he respect her for the intelligence & sense he supposedly loves, rather than trying to stop her using them? To be fair, he’s called on that by various of the secondary characters as well, so he’s not being held up by the author as a paragon of virtue.

But don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed both these books. I liked the portrayal of the Elizabethan era, and that Diana has culture shock and Matthew slips back almost (but not quite) into the attitudes of the time. I think Harkness has a deft touch with intertwining the creature politics and the human ones, things that make sense in our world as human things are recast as part of creature politics and make sense that way too. I liked the way that Diana’s inexplicable & strange inability to learn how to use her magic turned out to have a good reason behind it. And one that made travelling to 1590 turn out to be the best possible way to have done things. I also like how something spoilery happens – one of those scenarios where clearly this will work out in one way because Plot and then it doesn’t at all, it’s much more realistic. I think actually that might be the main thing I like about these books – yes, in some ways it’s urban fantasy with witches & vampires, but it’s got that grounding element of realism. And I suppose for all my rant about Matthew above, he’s realistic too.

I think it will be a trilogy, but I don’t know when the next book is out. Presumably next year not this year, at least.

“In Great Waters” Kit Whitfield; “The Iron King” Maurice Druon

Two books in one post, because I don’t think I’ve got much to say about either of these. I read most of both while we were up visiting J’s parents last weekend, tho I started “In Great Waters” before.

“In Great Waters” Kit Whitfield

This book took a while to get going for me, then I found the end disappointing and too neatly tied up for my tastes. In this alternate history merpeople are real and the kings & queens of Europe are descended from a hybrid, who took control of Venice back in the day. Every non-landlocked country wants a hybrid ruler because then they can get their coastal merpeople to stop invasions from other countries. The merpeople (who are never referred to as that, they are deepsmen) aren’t quite intelligent although they have language and are almost “human”. Because the royal families all descend from one woman, and so have been interbreeding for several generations they have all sorts of health issues. But “bastards” i.e. non-royal-family hybrids are strictly forbidden & burnt to death if found.

The story is seen from two points of view – Henry, a bastard brought up by deepsmen for the first few years of his life before being cast out, and Anne, youngest daughter of the current English royal family which is in the midst of a succession crisis. I think one of my problems with getting properly sucked into the book is that Henry is pretty alien in perspective (good in theory, but didn’t help me get immersed) and Anne spends most of the book being a passive observer (not even always seeing enough to be sure what’s going on). So the story seemed to happen off the page for the first two thirds of the book, then suddenly our two characters are the centre of it all and everything gets resolved. And I think the implications are that we all live happily ever after, except for those who don’t. And I just don’t buy that.

I did like the pseudo-Tudor court with its paranoid politics. I also liked the way Henry goes through culture shock when he gets kicked out of his deepsman life into a landsman life – and never quite gets over his upbringing even if he gets socialised to some degree. It felt real and made for an interesting character. Just it was hard to sympathise with him and made the first few chapters which are solely his point of view more difficult to get invested in. Whereas Anne was sympathetic (and again felt real) but given it’s a plot point that she projected an image of being a bit “simple” in public there’s a lot of watching things happen around her.

“The Iron King” Maurice Druon

Got this out of the library due to a review which mentioned that George R. R. Martin has said that Druon’s books were an influence on A Song of Ice & Fire. Druon is a French author, who published the seven books of his Accursed Kings series in the 1950s in French (the translation I read was done by Humphrey Hare and I’m not sure if that was a new one for this edition or is the one done in the 50s).

The Iron King tells a fictionalised version of the last year or so of the reign of Philip the Fair, Philip IV of France. To give some context, for those like me who are shaky on French history, his daughter Isabella married Edward II of England. Their son was Edward III of England (and he’s the one that kicks off the Hundred Years War (post)). The bulk of the plot revolves around the final events of the prosecution & persecution of the Templars, and Isabella’s campaign to expose her brothers’ wives infidelity. I think it keeps fairly close to the actual events of history where they’re known (and it has footnotes telling you more details sometimes!).

I liked reading it, but it did feel rather old-fashioned. Not sure if I’ll seek out the others in the series or not. I might prefer to read an actual history book about these people instead.

“Control Point” Myke Cole

I’m torn about how to sum up my feelings about this book – is it flawed and doesn’t work for me? Or is it ambitious but doesn’t work for me? This post will have spoilers because I don’t think I can discuss it without.

The basic premise of the book is that some event has happened in the relatively recent past of the story and now people are developing magic powers – they manifest in some particular power (controlling fire, say, or opening gates) and it can happen to anyone at any time. And the US (the world?) has reacted by categorising them, prohibiting some sorts, and (I think) conscripting them all into the army. Oh and by invading another dimension, with its own indigenous population that are called “goblins” by the humans.

The excerpt I read set me up for a story that I ultimately didn’t get. This is actually the same sort of problem as I had with the film Avatar, and is definitely on me and not on the book (or film, in the case of Avatar). The opening scenes of Control Point read like the protagonist, Oscar Britton, was going to be part of a majority of “good guys” in the military working against loose cannons like Harlequin. The opening scenes of the sequel, Fortress Frontier, read the same way with a new view point character – and I read that excerpt before this book turned up in the library. So I thought what would happen was Britton would manifest, then would go on the run (I read a review, so I knew that was on the cards) but then return to the military and work within the system to both do the necessary job and to help change things so kids weren’t being killed by a military supposed to protect them. And that’s not what I got at all. Part of my lack of enjoyment of the book is that I thought it was going in one direction, and then it wasn’t.

So that’s some of the “didn’t work for me” part of my opinion. If that had been all – if the story was just a different sort of story to my expectation – I might’ve still enjoyed it overall. I liked Avatar, after all, even if I’d still like to see the film I thought I was getting! πŸ™‚

But I also didn’t like where this story went. The whole of the military and by implication the government that are in charge of them seemed to me to be deeply immoral, and it felt like it a caricature written by someone philosophically opposed to the military (which doesn’t appear to be the case from reading Cole’s bio on his website). For instance – they’re invading this new dimension that the world has access to since the event that caused magic to happen. Not for a reason that’s ever mentioned, and in the story it’s a covert invasion and the population at large (even a lot of the military) don’t even know there’s a dimension there to invade. It’s never shown as a reaction to a threat, it’s just “ooh it’s there, let’s conquer it”. They’re brutalising and killing the indigenous population in a way that makes one think of the way the white settlers and the young US dealt with the Native American population. And that parallel is emphasised by a group of antagonists in our dimension who are Native American terrorists using the new magic to try & secede violently from the US.

Everyone who manifests is conscripted into the military, initial training involves brainwashing as well as teaching them control. And either the brainwashing takes and they “voluntarily” join the military proper or it doesn’t take and they hang about being trainees until it does (or forever). Even if you manifest in a non-prohibited school of magic you’re not allowed to be a civilian once you’ve learnt control – nope, you need to “volunteer” or stay to rot. If it’s a prohibited school of magic and/or you go on the run when you manifest coz you don’t fancy vanishing into the military then as far as the outside world is concerned you either die or are locked up forever – but the reality is that you “join the military as a contractor” with the threat of actual death always hanging over you and none of the rights of a real soldier. Britton has a bomb inside his chest, coz that’s the sort of brutal thing this army does when they don’t think the brainwashing will take.

It is more than probable that this is intended as a dystopic view of a potential future – a “what if” about how a totalitarian leaning US government would react to people gaining superpowers. An extrapolation from the sort of regime that runs Guantanamo Bay. But to me it felt shallowly caricatured rather than interestingly dystopic.

And then we have Britton who goes through the entire story fucking things up via not thinking more than one step ahead in his “good intentions”. Again, I suspect this is deliberate – and this is the bit that makes me tip my opinion towards “ambitious but doesn’t work for me”. It’s a working out of the proverb that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Britton tries to save the kids at the start, but his actions actually cause more people to get hurt. Britton goes on the run, but he can’t control his powers & people die because of it. In trying to protect himself & get the bomb removed from his chest Britton gets people killed, rather than try the option that might have a higher risk for him but a lower risk for everyone else (this one in particular is signposted as a bad idea so strongly that I really can’t imagine why Britton ever thought it was a good idea). And that’s just a few examples – the whole book is full of them.

As I was reading it, I was thinking it’s a flawed story of an evil army doing evil things because it’s evil, with a hero who we are told is smart but who can’t seem to ever engage his brain before acting. But after finishing, and thinking about what to put in this post I started to think it’s an ambitious story about what would happen if the military machine that runs Guantanamo Bay & Abu Ghraib had to deal with American citizens manifesting dangerous superpowers, and how even the best of intentions don’t matter when you don’t think about the consequences of your actions. But nonetheless, it didn’t work for me – on the whole I’m more optimistic about human nature (perhaps that’s naivety, I have a feeling that’s what Cole would say). And I prefer reading stories that share some of that optimism, or at least have a protagonist that I like rather than want to shake and tell him to “think first, damnit!”.