“Book of Shadows” Paula Brackston

Another book I got out of the library after reading an excerpt on tor.com. Well, I read an excerpt of the sequel and remembered I’d been intrigued by the first one when I’d read that excerpt, and finally found out it had a different title in the UK.

The story is the story of Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, born in the early 17th Century and still living in 2007 – told partly through her journal, and partly via three long flashbacks to significant events in her long life. She’s a witch – a real one, with real ability to do magic – who has lived her long life in fear of being found by the man (Gideon) who trained her. The magic system is the sort of traditional witchcraft from both 17th century & modern ideas of witchcraft – herbwives, healing, pacts with devilish beings, black witches & white ones, fires on Beltane, the Summerlands etc. That sounds dismissive, but actually I think it’s one of the strengths of the book – it’s not explained in detail, it just is and its recognisability makes it feel more real than some meticulously detailed explanation would.

In 2007 Elizabeth has just moved to a new home, and starts befriending a local teenager almost despite herself. She tells this teenager (Tegan) some of the story of her life – including how she came to be a witch in plague-stricken, witch-fearing 1627. The next interlude is Gideon catching up with her in 1888, and then we have the last time she loved someone (in the midst of the First World War). She’s hoping, initially, that she’s finally free of Gideon – but you can sense the inevitable results of letting her guard down right from the start of the book. However that doesn’t make it predictable – I didn’t guess what the ending was going to be until it happened, but once it did it felt right and a better end than the predictable thing I thought was coming.

It was a book I enjoyed reading, and I always wanted to know what happened next. But that’s not to say it’s without its flaws. In retrospect it feels like a lot happened off-screen that was actually rather important to the story – and then suddenly it’s revealed in the last few pages, and in some ways undermines the characterisation of Elizabeth that we’ve had up to that point. Also – Tegan was mostly a cipher, which didn’t help overcome the constant reminders of Doctor Who from her name (although the character was more Ace than Tegan in so far as she was developed). And Gideon felt a bit cartoonishly bad.

As far as I can tell this is Brackston’s first book (her webpage only mentions this (calling it “The Witch’s Daughter”, which is the title in the US) and the next one, “The Winter Witch”) – I’m not blown away by it, but I shall keep an eye out for more from her in future.

“The Desert of Souls” Howard Andrew Jones

I read an excerpt from the sequel to “The Desert of Souls” on tor.com & was intrigued enough to reserve this one at the library. And then a bit startled when it came in coz it had been long enough that I forgot I’d reserved it 🙂

It’s set primarily in the Baghdad of the 8th Century, during the time of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, and our protagonists are part of the household of Jaffar, son of the Vizier. Jafar & Haroun are historical figures (as are some of the others), and they are also protagonists in some of the stories in the Arabian Nights. This story is a kind of modern story of that type, with ancient magic & djinn. There’s also some of the feel of Sherlock Holmes & Watson to the main two characters.

Everything is told to us by Captain Asim, the man in charge of Jaffar’s household guards. He organises a diversion for Jaffar after his pet bird has died – they go out into the market place in disguise, accompanied by the scholar Dabir. While Jaffar enjoys pretending to be a common person they go and have their fortunes told, and shortly afterwards a man being chased through the streets trying to reach Jaffar dies in front of them carrying an elaborate door pull. The two main plot lines of the book are thus launched – Dabir are tasked to find out what is so important about the door pull, and Asim is to guard him particularly when this requires travelling to a far away ruined city. Jaffar is also keen to separate Dabir from his erstwhile pupil, Jaffar’s niece Sabirah, out of fear that they have fallen in love – said fear being encouraged by the prophecy of the fortune teller. Sabirah is destined for an arranged marriage with someone politically suitable, and far above the station of a scholar/tutor no matter how learned he is.

One thing I really liked about this book is how rooted in the real world it is – even the bits that are fantastical. There’s a tale within the tale about a previous adventure of Jaffar, Asim & Dabir and described as an incidental detail in the ancient ruins they visit is what is what seems quite clearly an ancient Assyrian relief of a king in a chariot. The afterword at the end says that Haroun & Jaffar are real, but I was quite pleased I’d figured that out already & I’d looked them up (and the answer to what Jaffar’s prophecy means was mentioned in wikipedia too!). Also helping it to feel real was that the characters don’t feel like 21st Century Westerners dumped in an exotic setting.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Here be spoilers! Read at own risk 😉 It also probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the film yet, as I’m not doing a plot synopsis.

J & I went to see The Hobbit on Tuesday evening & it was rather good 🙂

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

I’ll get the negative things I want to say out of the way first, as they’re not about the story. We went to the Imax screen in Cineworld which has assigned seats and ended up with seats nearish the back at the side (row P in screen 6 if you’re local to Ipswich and want to avoid this) – which put us right underneath one of the rear speaker stacks and as a result the sound was appalling. I was wondering during the trailers/ads if I needed ear plugs and whether I was going to come out of the film with ringing ears. Thankfully it was less over-loud during the film itself (or maybe there were just more quiet bits to recover during), but it was still loud enough to be distorted at times and the “background” noise drowned out the voices at more than one point. Another time we’ll go to a different showing if those are the only seats left.

I liked the use of 3D – most of the time just adding depth in a fairly subtle way, with the occasional thing popping out to good effect (the butterfly that flew away towards the back of the cinema, and some flaming pine cones that made me duck are the things that have particularly stuck in my mind). But I did think it looked blurry when panning across a scene – I’d wonder if it was artistic choice if it was just the fight scenes (the chaos of war or something) but it was even when panning around scenery with no or few moving things. We were watching the 24fps 3D version, and I do wonder if the 48fps version would look better for those bits – I should’ve looked that up before we bought tickets I guess, I just didn’t think it’d make that much difference. (Screen 8 in Cineworld Ipswich is doing 48fps apparently, if you were going to go see it.)

OK, now I’ve got my grumpy old woman bit out of the way what about the film itself? 🙂

I enjoyed it 🙂 I think they did a good job of weaving in the things that were in the book and the things they got from the rest of Tolkien’s world. And presumably some things were additions of their own, but nothing stuck out like a sore thumb. I had read that they’d given Galadriel a role in the story to have a female character with a speaking part in the film – in some ways making some of the dwarves female might’ve been the better answer (and is probably what would be the case if this was written these days), but that would require changing things too much for most people’s tastes (I can imagine the explosions about how they’d “ruined Tolkien’s story”). When I’d read about it I’d worried it might feel tacked on or shoehorned in to tick some boxes, but I thought they did a very good job. The scene itself didn’t just work in the context of the film, but also in setting up Saruman’s turning to evil in the Lord of the Rings films.

I don’t think Saruman is supposed to’ve already gone over to Sauron at this point, but I think you can see he’s starting to slide down the slippery slope. The petty dismissal & belittling of Radagast because he doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard of acceptable behaviour & appearance. The lack of empathy towards the exiled dwarves. The way he seems more concerned that things should be done the “proper way” rather than with considering what is the right thing to be doing. And I particularly liked the way the film makes it explicit that everyone else is just tuning out his ranting by fading back the sound and having Galadriel & Gandalf have a mental conversation while Saruman drones on.

I also liked the way that while they do state a couple of the themes of the film in the dialogue they don’t belabour it. So Gandalf says the bit about “true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” but when it comes to the point where that matters we aren’t beaten around the head with why Bilbo shows mercy or that this is a Significant Moment, we’re trusted to realise that for ourselves.

And the other is when Gandalf is talking to Galadriel about Saruman and says “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.” (Quotes taken from IMDB btw, they do look about right but the wording might be a little off as I think they’re user submitted.) And really that’s spread through everything that happens in the film. One of J’s colleagues pointed out there’s a lot of shots of Thorin as “The Hero”, backlit and/or in slow-mo. As Anna points out this is mostly when he’s being talked about by the other characters, when they’re telling stories about him and his deeds, it’s about how the other dwarves see Thorin. But I think it’s also that he’s the character who should be The Hero, he’s the one who is the last of the line of Durin going to take back his home from the dragon, the prince of the blood, the trained warrior, the man with the blood feud with Azog. By all rights this should be his story. But it’s not, it’s the story of our homesick fussy little hobbit who unexpectedly & out-of-characterly went on an adventure. And over the course of the film he looks at one terrible & scary situation after another and summons up all his courage and does what needs to be done even tho he’d rather be back home & comfortable, warm & dry. Like when they meet the Trolls, there’s Bilbo – first trying to sneak in to get the horses back, then trying to talk their way out of being eaten. And most obviously when Thorin does his Hero thing and runs down the tree to fight his sworn enemy, but fails – it’s Bilbo who saves his life by rushing in, not fearlessly but because it is the right thing to do. And then after that the rest of the dwarves come, and Gandalf’s summoned rescuing eagles arrive. But if Bilbo hadn’t done what needed to be done, then the story would be over.

I liked Radagast – at first I thought he was a bit over-done with the eccentricities but he’s clearly not just a foolish old man talking to the animals. He’s got power, and he’s got courage – going to the fortress tracking the spiders, for instance – and he’s paying more attention to the world about him than Saruman is. I guess that’s one of the other themes of the film – don’t go on superficial appearances. Like Saruman’s distaste for Radagast, like Thorin’s dismissal of Bilbo.

The dwarves were cool – I thought the film handled the mix of slapstick and seriousness well. And actually getting some of the songs was neat (and didn’t feel musical-ish with the songs part of the production rather than the world inside the story, it felt like these actual characters would burst into song in that way). Although of course I’ve had “Time passes. Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.” running through my head ever since. I can’t remember who I was talking to about it recently, but we concluded there’s a generation of us who will immediately remember the game that came from 🙂

I did think there was a bit much of the “run through the goblin caves killing goblins” scenes. But then it culminated in the line that made me laugh the most so I’ll forgive it 😉 That being the bit where the goblin king says “So now what are you going to do?” and Gandalf slices him open, so the goblin king looks down and says “That’ll do it.” and dies. Made me giggle, the timing was perfect.

I’m sure there was other stuff I thought I wanted to comment on, but I think that’s enough for one post 🙂