Jingo, by Terry Pratchett

But… but… but that was much better than I remember it being!

N.B. I have skipped Hogfather, partly because I reviewed it already before starting this re-read project, and partly because I might just read it again at Christmas anyway, which isn’t long now. So I’m moving past it, and may return to it at Christmas if I feel like it.

So, Jingo. Probably my most hated Discworld book. I wasn’t looking forward to this. And yet… it’s weirdly good.

Now that said, I know exactly why I’ve always had a problem with it. There are two main issues here:

  1. Pratchett is incredibly patronising here. Most of the time, Pterry is even-handed and nuanced; but when there’s an Issue he has Opinions about, no legitimate opposition is admitted. One gets the strong feeling that he simply does not understand The Other Side on some issues, and so assumes out of desparation that they must be deaf, or stupid, and in either case in need of some LOUD SLOOOOW LEKSHURING. Here, the island of Leshp rises out of the sea in a slightly Lovecraftian and strangely prophetic re-imagining of the 1831 appearance of Graham Island (prophetic as about five years after the book was written it was believed that Graham Island would return again, and it was promptly and pre-emptively claimed for all eternity as the territory of Sicily; so far it’s still underwater, but flags and ownership notices have been lowered down onto it through the water). Instantly, idiot fishermen become nationalists – fathers complain of foreigners stealing ‘their squid, while their sons groan-inducingly express confusion over how the squid can belong to someone when they haven’t been caught yet. Immediately after that we see the crowds of idiot commoners in Ankh-Morpork who have all turned into mindless nationalists wanting war. The second part of this problem, as this suggests, is that Pratchett always has a rather derogatory view of the poor – he praises them, but sees them as salt-of-the-earth kinds who need to be lead by proper elites with braincells. One reason, after all, why so many of his characters seem like strong, intelligent characters is that they’re surrounded by a morass of morons. Most of the time, this isn’t a big problem (most stories by any author make the protagonists smarter than the average farmer, otherwise the story wouldn’t work), but when he veers into politics it becomes objectionable. Similarly, his views on minorities: while I must admit some sympathy for his skepticism toward lobby groups and his emphasis on freedom for the individual rather than concessions toward this lobby group or that, his expression of this attitude is often rather… well, Pratchet clearly read a lot of 19th- and early 20th-century literature when he was young, and on this issue it shows. It’s not just the jokes here about feminists and civil rights activists, it’s the way he depicts foreign traditions as traps to confuse the English tourist – OK, so sometimes they are, but here the emphasis is less on the mercenary side of this and more on the idiocy of those who insist that other cultures are different. This is Pratchett’s version of tolerance of other cultures: of course Johnny Foreigner isn’t a backward primitive, that’s for show, and anyway the really important Johnny Foreigners are all Omar Sharif and have a perfect English accent and act like perfect Englishmen.
    OK, that’s being harsh – there is recognition here that the Klatchians are civilised quite apart from their Ankh-Morpork educations and accents, and hey, quite a lot of foreign ruling elites have had Etonian educations. It’s just… it’s not what he says so much as the tone-deaf, tub-thumping way in which he says it. Left as a note in the background it would be a bit ridiculous to have a problem with this stuff, but it is not the part of his worldview that he should be bringing front-and-centre if he wants to not piss people off.
    [Maybe I’m a little extra-sensitive right now, though, having just read Interesting Times, which has many of the same problems]
  2. The plot is useless. It’s set up as an OK mystery thing, albeit a dull one, and then there are various threads, and then… it ends. Pretty much the whole book is, from the point of view of the ultimate plot, completely pointless. Now admittedly some of that pointlessness is lampshaded and made into a character feature, but still… it’s pointless. And then a god comes out of a machine and fixes everything.

 

So why do I say it’s much better than I remember it being? Well, the form may be poor, but a lot of the material is excellent. Take out the annoying political set-up and the last third or so of the novel (a mixture of dodgy politics and people wandering around waiting for a plot that makes sense), and what we basically have is a big chunk of scenes of the Watch that Pterry thought were funny but that didn’t fit into the previous books. [Disclaimer: I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it’s how it feels]. And he was [hypothetically] right: they’re funny. And having less of a plot around to get in the way is actually a massive bonus, because we get to see the characters ‘at rest’, as it were.

As a result, as well as being very funny, this may be the best view we ever get of the Watch as people, and in particular of the relationships between them. We get scenes of Vimes and Sybil (“I’m just going out to kick some arse, dear”); we get some much-needed scenes of Angua and Carrot. We get Colon and Nobby. Breaking away from the established duets, we even get Angua and Nobby – not only on screen, but second-hand through Nobby, and it’s interesting the different perspective Nobby has of her (his Angua anecdotes include her casually reading through an illustrated sex manual that Carrot accidentally acquired, and her suggesting that “nudity is the traditional costume everywhere”; Nobby has something of a one-track mind).

Speaking of whom: the book finally made me realise what I want from Discworld. I want a Watch book from the perspective of Angua. Why not? She’s clearly the smartest of them. She’s with the possible exception of Detritus the most physically intimidating of them. Given that she’s constantly fighting back the temptation to kill and eat people, she’s probably the most frightening of them when the chips are down. Her sense of smell is basically a superpower. She may not know the city as well as Carrot or Vimes, but that can be an asset, and she does know parts of it that they don’t know; she’s also the most level-headed and sensible of the bunch; and she’s the one who treats her work as a (morally good, and important) job, rather than as some sort of divine mission, her viewpoint is lighter and a better opportunity for humour. I want an “Angua Investigates” series, damnit! Instead, she has to be sidelined book after book, because otherwise it would all become much too easy…

That said: the comfort Angua shows here, both in the city and with Carrot, is puzzling; Men at Arms, Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant would otherwise form a clear character-arc trilogy for her, but Jingo is just sat in the middle there with no relation to anything. It sort of adds to the impression of Jingo as something churned out of spare material to meet publisher’s demands (it’s not just crammed with good jokes, it’s also got a bunch of plot ideas that individually lead nowhere and aren’t really central to the book, as though Pratchett has just shoved in all the ideas that he couldn’t make work by themselves).

[Come to think of it, another problem with Angua reveals a problem in a lot of Pratchett: we come to the character near the end of their story. Most of what would conventionally be Angua’s story is already over by the time we first meet her in Men at Arms – we just get to see her wrapping up those last issues. Likewise, Vimes has a long history that has made him who he is today – but we only get the last moments of it in Guards! Guards! and everything after that is just polishing. That’s a big part of what make Night Watch so appealing: we actually get to see the story rather than just the consequences of it. And again, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg – they’re near the end of their fascinating lives, and so much of the interest in the characters is the hints of where they’ve come from. That in turn is a big part of what makes Lords and Ladies so good – we get much more explicit consideration of their histories. Of course, seeing behind the curtain is always exciting with established characters, but I think it’s even more the case in Pratchett, where the characters seem divided into those who have had a story (Angua, Vimes, Granny, Nanny) and those who are filled with the promise of being at the beginning of their story (Susan and the other youngsters) or of having a bigger story up their sleeves for the future (Carrot). Come to think of it, that may also be why Maskerade is a minor stand-out in its own right: we get to actually be with Agnes as she lives through an important part of her story.]

Aaaaaanyway. Everything I disliked about Jingo is still there… but it’s much less of a problem than I was expecting. Hold your nose at the very beginning, and waft in plenty of fresh air toward the finale. Once you get past the intense patronisation, the slight whiff of some unpleasant assumptions, and the complete absence of anything resembling an adequate plot or ending, Jingo is actually very funny, and gives us some much-needed time with our beloved characters in a slightly less rushed context.

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. Not a thriller, thanks to inadequate plotting. However, Pratchett keeps things going at a brisk pace while still keeping it comfortable, and there are just enough dangling plot hooks to pull the reader through by the curiosity.

Emotion: 2/5. Does just the minimum in terms of conflict and emotion and whatnot. I didn’t find myself strongly engaged at any point: there’s little sense of risk at any stage, and the apparent stakes are too big to be taken seriously at this point in the series. We already know by now what Pratchett will and won’t do.

Thought: 2/5. There are some good lines, and a little murder mystery in the middle of it… but for the most part it’s better if you actively avoid thinking too much for this one.

Beauty: 3/3. Again, some good lines, and a couple of bits of nice imagery, and more importantly Pratchett halfway through his cycle is too good to leave anything positively ugly lying around.

Craft: 3/5. Both the plotting and the tone are off in this one; there were a couple of odd possible errors, and I was unconvinced by a few character notes. In most ways, a sub-par effort. On the other hand, the comedy was actually in good form, and the bad character notes are balanced out by some perspicacious ones, which we probably wouldn’t have gotten to see in a more plot-centric outing.

Endearingness: 3/5. Despite the irritations, this was probably a 4 when I was reading it… it’s a funny, light read. But it’s been pushed down in retrospect, largely because he doesn’t stick the landing.

Originality: 3/5. The plot structure is fairly original and unpredictable – which may be part of why it doesn’t work, but also had its benefits. On the other hand, some characters and jokes are starting to get a little worn by now.

OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. It was a bit of a roller-coaster of judgement, to be honest: within a page, I’d remembered why I hated it, but then a little way it I was really enjoying it. The weak ending, however, caps a weak final third that doesn’t really know where it’s going in my opinion, draws the attention back to the weaknesses of the book, and makes it hard to call it genuinely good. This is – despite its ostensible Serious Themes and High Stakes – a particularly light and disposable installment of the cycle, with surprisingly few ramifications for any of the characters. It’s enjoyable enough in places, but there are no great stand-out scenes, and it’s the bits I didn’t like that are sticking in my memory (which may be why I’ve become more negative on it even just from the beginning of this review to the end – but it’s also because I think I began surprised by how non-terrible it was, and as I went on I came to admit how non-great it was too).

But then, it’s important to remember the standard it’s being judged against: a Pratchett book is always going to be judged by the standards of Pratchett books. Contrary to my thoughts going into this re-read, this probably isn’t the worst of the Discworld books, but it’s definitely below par for Pratchett, and particularly at this stage in the cycle. On the other hand, a below-par Discworld is still usually an enjoyable book in its own right, and I am comfortable calling this Not Bad.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Hooray! I read an almost-contemporary book!

And now I have to feel all nervous about reviewing it, as the author is neither incalculably rich and famous nor too dead to use the internet. Ah well. As normal in these cases I’ll try to give a fairly straightforward and to-the-point opinion so as to reduce any potential offense.

 

What is this?

It’s a relatively low-magic fantasy novel, set in a typical faux-European world, this time with a time period that feels sometime around the renaissance. It’s hard to say exactly – military elements suggest later middle ages (they don’t use guns, for instance), but some court elements suggest early modern, even enlightenment. Perhaps ‘generic historic Europe’ will do. The distinguishing feature are the dragons who live in areas neighbouring the setting country. These are unusually depicted as… well, Vulcans, to be honest. We could say “people with generic sort-of-Asperger’s”, but yeah, no, they’re Vulcans with wings. Who can take human shape.

The protagonist – and first-person narrator – is a young woman, a musician, and the story is just as much her personal story as it is a story of the world around her. She is very unique and special, but has dificulty recognising her own wonderfulness. There is also a man present for her to fall (almost) instantly in love with, though a number of misunderstandings complicate their relationship.

It’s not advertised as part of a series, but apparently there is a sequel. Certainly going by the ‘external’ plot it feels overwhelmingly like the start of a series… but the protagonist’s ‘internal’ arc feels at a point by the end of it where I wouldn’t have been wholly shocked if the author had left off right there.

It’s sometimes advertised as a YA novel, apparently. I don’t know why, but then I don’t understand YA. The protagonist is young, I guess, but is that really all it takes these days to be YA? After all, going by that, 90% of classic fantasy should be called ‘YA’… anyway, I guess there’s nothing egregiously non-YA about this, so whatever. [Not that I really know what’s non-YA either, to be honest. I don’t think I was ever a Young Adult in the marketing sense. I just read whatever seemed interesting]

 

What is good about this?

Hartman has a (generally) unpretentious, easy style, with some good moments of prose. It has dragons in it, and music, although to be honest I wasn’t entirely convinced by the music-talk, and I’d also have liked it to have been more important. It is generally well-constructed; its greatest asset is its pacing, with short chapters and constant events (even if not all of them are important) pulling the reader through. I stayed up later than I should have done to finish it. Hartman also has a number of good ideas along the way, mostly about setting but some about character; the plot is nothing new, but it feels fresh enough and it’s handled well (though it got a bit by-the-numbers at the end). I thought one of the characters was interesting. The author does at least attempt to write dragons as alien intelligences. The focus on characters and relationships is welcome; it reminded me at times of Robin Hobb in that regard – without, certainly, the brilliance of Hobb, but then this is apparently Hartman’s first novel, so some latitude maybe should be given. The characters are all generally likeable.

 

What is not good about this?

I was more reminded of Anne McCaffery, and not wholly in a good way. The protagonist reminded me of a much less sympathetic version of Menolly – the musical elements help in that regard, of course, though they’re more convincing in Pern – who could easily have wandered onto screen at any moment. That is, Seraphina is a bit of a Mary Sue, instantly wonderful at everything – sometimes naturally, sometimes preternaturally. She’s not the worst example of this by far, certainly, but it is an element there. And, like Menolly, her effusive and continual expressions of self-doubt do not quite cover over the basic arrogance of her actions.

It occurs to me that this is a bit like those job interview questions. You know, where you’re asked “what’s your biggest weakness” and you say “I work sometimes work too hard” or something else that isn’t really a weakness. Likewise, I find the excuse “I’m not a Mary Sue – look how humble and self-effacing I am!” unpersuasive. In fact that makes it much worse. If someone’s just great, I can move on – maybe we’re reading about them because they’re great. But the humble greatness – it means we constantly have to have everyone else in the book telling us how great she is. Until (spoiler!) eventually she agrees. Come on book, yes, I get that she’s the best person in the world and I can accept that for the sake of a good story, but that really isn’t the aspect you want to be harping on about every couple of the pages.

Maybe that’s what’s YA about it. Maybe it’s meant to help teenagers confront their self-doubt. But then it would have made more sense to have made the character likeable but ordinary (like most people). Having a character being able to defeat their self-doubt because really they’re already wonderful and intelligent and talented and good and nice and wonderful and perfect, and everybody else knows this… that kind defeats the point, doesn’t it? Likewise the elements of prejudice, where on the one hand the prejudice is sort of there to justify her self-doubt, but on the other hand nobody important would have those prejudices obviously so (at least so far) it’s never of any actual (rather than imagined) significance. Prejudice is fine for a book, but at least make it have real practical effects, not just through excess self-doubt. In particular, I’m just not sure that a book featuring a self-harmer that sets out from the beginning to show how self-harm might actually be a good idea and make sense in some cases is really a great idea. I’m torn between not liking this element because it feels fundamentally wrong-headed and supportive of self-harm, and not liking it because it feels shoehorned in to be ‘relevant’ to a teenage crowd who it is to be imagined are all into that sort of thing. And either way I felt that it was in a way only skin deep (no pun intended, for those who have read the novel): Seraphina reads like a teenager who is overly popularity-conscious, she doesn’t really read like someone who has been living with debilitating self-esteem issues her whole life. For intance, she’s friendly, forthright, outspoken (but not in a bitter or arrogant or even defiant way), not risk-averse at all, and willing to put herself in potentially awkward social situations that even most normal adults would quail at. Now, on the one hand I do get that she’s helped by a lifetime of lying about things – but you can’t sell me the crippling self-doubt when she’s clearly only afflicted by it at plot-convenient times. I just don’t buy that – I don’t buy her as a carefree, ‘fuck it all’ risk-seeking conman sort of girl, and I don’t buy her as a tearful self-harming ‘but what will the boys think of me’ second-guessing woe-is-me-I’m-not-special type either, in large part because I don’t feel Hartman even tries to sell me on how those two interpretations are meant to fit together (nor on the idea that they’re not meant to). Instead it feels like some teen angst slapped on the side of an otherwise flawless character, but carefully not in ways that would get in the way of the plot. A serious deep-seated psychological problem could be interesting, but a ‘problem’ that doesn’t really define the character and that can in the end be quickly done away with without seemingly transforming the character in a major way is just… angst for the sake of angst. [Though perhaps this point may be redeemed somewhat if a sequel shows us a very different Seraphina once she has digested these events].

Similarly with prejudice. This could be a book about facing prejudice, or about social outcasts, or about the construction of ‘deviant’ identities, and culture clash and inheritence and maybe even colonialism if she wanted… but it isn’t. Which is a pity because actually I’ld like to read that book. But instead that side of things is all just… skin deep, again. Superficial. [There are so many hooks that are left underutilised here!]

Anyway, all this would probably be fine for me in the background, but as the central arc it felt a little façile. Likewise, the romance. Now, to be fair, there was a span of about twenty pages where I thought she might take the romance in an unexpected direction, and I’m not totally sure that she isn’t going to go there in the sequel. In which case, chapeau. But for the most part it’s a totally uninspired, by-the-book and predictable business. More importantly, it’s too central. Not that a romance can’t be central to a book! Despite being a male reader who says ‘bah humbug’ a lot and is scornful of romcoms and romance novels and the like… I actually like romance plots. Actually, I really like romance plots. [And several of my favourite films are romcoms... they just aren’t films that people normally think of as romcoms]. The problem is, this romance plot doesn’t deserve to be as central as it is. This isn’t primetime material, this is ‘that minor romance that the sidekick is having in the background’ level of material. In particular, I’m struck by what seems to be the how little authors seem to think of women in novels. If the protagonist were male, at least a little effort would go into showing why he’s in love with the girl – sure, it would be simplistic and probably involve her being unrealistic, perfect-yet-mysterious and so on but it would probably be there. But a female protagonist? Well, he’s male, he’s pretty in a nondescript way, he’s not offensive to talk to, he seems interested, he’s got a sword and horse and probably a large penis… what more could you want, girls? Any faint hint of characterisation (beyond one derivative monologue about his childhood near then end of the book)? Oh, and a tendency to stalk the heroine? He must be perfect romantic material! [In his defence, he was a creepy stalker mostly when they were both children and he saw her once at a distance and got obsessed with her, and I don’t think has done a lot of stalking of her in recent years… but even so, I’m still a little baffled that “we haven’t met but I know all about you did you know what your grandmother’s gravestone says I do because I researched you as a child and I sent someone all the way to another country to make rubbings of the headstones of your relatives for me even though nobody else in this town has any idea who you are” is apparently considered an acceptable, even romantic, line for a first or second date! But apparently it is. Can I say ‘bah humbug’ again at this point?]

Anyway, this isn’t a romance novel per se, but the romance subplot is too prominent for its depth. Which in some ways is a shame, because a brief glimpse we get of another romance shows that Hartman can write good romantic material – just not this time. [Come to think of it, the main pairing is at the very most only the third most interesting romantic duo. Possibly fourth? And none of the others get much more than a paragraph, so that’s not saying much]

But then, in defence of the character I’ve just impugned… this lack of depth basically applies to everybody. Aside from the protagonist/narrator, who isn’t all that interesting but narrators/protagonists get a bit of a free pass, there’s one, arguably two, vaguely interesting characters, and even they don’t feel totally unique. Everyone else is absolutely familiar, and almost entirely devoid of depth, complexity or interest. The fact that most people are likeable is also a problem: because everyone (except maybe some dragons) is either basically good (almost everyone), in which case they’re also basically likeable, or just plain bad (a few people), in which case they’re just plain bad.

Maybe that’s what they mean by ‘YA’. ‘YA’ these days does seem mostly to be used as an excuse – oh, it doesn’t need three-dimensional characters, it’s YA. But there’s no warning label on my copy saying “do not read if you have more than three braincells”, so I reserve the right to grumble, damnit.

[Oh, hang-on, maybe it does. The author-quote on the front is by Christopher Paolini. To be honest, that would probably have been enough to have ensured I never read the thing, if I hadn’t hear such glowing recommendations from others]

I was unconvinced by her dragons. Now, to the author’s credit I was much closer to being convinced by the end of the novel than I was at the start. A fair portion of which conversion was due to the single description of dragons as “feral file clerks”. But I never actually got to the point of being convinced. Part of that was that I didn’t feel dragon society as depicted really made sense or felt deep or real – although it certainly did have a couple of great ideas behind it. And part of it was just that the “non-humans who are super-intelligent but cannot understand emotion, metaphor, sarcasm or humour” is sooo cliché, and so fundamentally ridiculous (well, I’ll maybe grant you the humour bit) that it would take a really good treatment to sell me that one. Hartman gives it a better go that I was expecting, but not good enough to sell that.

Speaking of cliché, a minor but to me highly annoying thing was the sheer fantasyness of the names. I know it isn’t important, but please pick what you’re going for, don’t have names and words from random different languages stuck together, it makes it look a bit silly. [At least, if you do that you need to do a better job of explaining the cultural differences]. On which note, the horrible eye-accents, please no. [And Lars? We know you’re not really Lars, you’re really Igor, and you have wandered in from a Pratchett novel’s parody Transylvania]. And sort of related to this: I’m not entirely sold on the narrative voice, which seems at one moment very archaic and/or elevated (e.g. refering to someone’s “sinister hand” rather than their “left”) and at another sounds very contemporary and down-to-earth.

Finally, one part of the book is based on a big gimmick, and it feels like the beginning of a big gimmicky-quest based on a gimmick, and it also leads to some WTF moments in the plotting near the end. As it turns out, it’s basically entirely superfluous to the plot (other than providing yet another reason why the heroine is Wonderful and Important) – but in a way that’s worse. As with the Mary Sue thing – OK, a cheesy gimmick is sometimes necessary for the plot. But when you’ve got a big cheesy gimmick that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the plot… why do we need it? [It’s possible that that’s going to be the basis of further installments. In which case I’ll sigh and go along with it, because I can see how it can provoke some good plot points, and some enjoyable moments.]

 

So what do I think?

Err… despite all the above, I mostly quite liked it. Like I said above: likeableish characters, some good ideas, pacing keeps things going by too quickly to really get caught up too much in the flaws. It’s a generally likeable, enjoyable book.

I’m struck, coincidentally, by the comparison with the last book I read, Dance of the Dead, another book about a strangely wonderful young woman with a prominent romantic subplot, but from twenty years ago, in a different era of the genre. In almost every technical way, Seraphina is a better book. But which will I look more kindly on when I look back on them? As a book – that is, discounting the possibility of Seraphina being the start of a better series – probably Dance of the Dead, to be honest. For one thing, other than the setting, the Ravenloft novel seems to have thought about each element just a little more than Seraphina (the villains are certainly more memorable, and the stupid love plot actually has some reasoning behind it). Plus the stakes are much, much higher and there’s more willingness to go dark (because it’s Ravenloft!). But the big thing may be that Seraphina takes itself more seriously. It’s got good ideas, it’s got relationships, it’s got a whole heck of a lot of angst. [OK, it probably doesn’t help that the whole “I don’t think people would like me if they knew all about me… therefore I don’t like myself” thing is an emotional beat I literally cannot empathise with in the slightest. I get not living up to your own standards, and I get being worried about being judged by others… but self-loathing on the grounds of what other people think? I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but that’s just something I viscerally do not understand the concept of.]

But a dumb adventure with a sky-high deathcount is an easy thing to approach with a certain swagger and a certain disregard for finesse. When you’re dealing with relationships and angst, I think you need more depth – partly because these things are character-based which means you need to base them on actual characters, and partly just because angst is just something that invites more thought and scrutiny than adventure.

But maybe part of that is just me. What I will say is that this is a proficient novel, for a first novel, and that there is enough promise shown here to suggest the possibility of the author’s later novels becoming very good indeed. This one, however, is in my opinion just an enjoyable read if you like this kind of stuff and are willing not to be too critical as you read. I can’t say I understand the effusive praise that has been lavished on it – not so much because it’s offensively bad, but just that I think it’s clear how much untapped potential there is in it, how many ways it could have been better. In some ways, that “yeah, but I wish…” thing is more frustrating than an objectively worse book that is all that it can be. If you tried to make Dance of the Dead a better book you’d mostly have to write the whole thing from scratch, which sort of forces you to take it as it is. Seraphina could have been a really good book if it did what it did but a little bit better. And that’s always going to be galling. But of course, untapped potential goes both ways: there’s a lot more promise about this book than there was about Dance of the Dead. I want to see where she goes from here.

[Tangentially I suppose, the book this most reminds me of is Blue Moon Rising, by Simon R Green, and I wonder how that book would be received today. The direct parallels are few, so I’m not certain why I’m linking them… I think it’s the way that Green is taking some cliché generic fantasy and pushing it just a little harder, and taking some fairly bland, shallow characters and making them go just a bit further, and mixing the generic fantasy with more interesting, specific notes. And maybe the fact they’re both debuts. Seraphina certainly isn’t as good as that novel in its good bits; on the other hand, it lacks the really annoying attempts at genre humour that Green indulges in, and is more consistent overall.]

So where am I? I’m left not regretting that I read it, but not praising it to the rafters either. I’m left pretty sure that I’m going to read the sequel, and I’m left with Hartman in the ‘authors to observe with interest’ column. I think it depends where she chooses to go from here: if she takes the good and leaves the bad and wants to improve, I think she has the talent and imagination to go exciting places. If she just wants to keep writing books at this level, though, I suspect she’ll be one of those authors whose books I always sort of enjoy, but where I just loose interest and wander off after a couple.

 

Scores:

Adrenaline: 4/5. Never really a thriller, but it dragged me through at an unflagging pace.

Emotion: 3/5. The emotional predicaments did hit home… but their lack of depth prevented them from landing as hard as they might have done. In particular, angst is a lot more powerful when you have more consideration of its origins, or when you have more consideration of its consequences. Yes, in theory there were logical reasons for the angst here, but they felt so distant and shallow and unthreatening that it mostly came across as “I’m a teenager look at me be angsty and self-harming because I’m worried boys won’t like me… but don’t worry, I’ll get over it later and everything will be good. Oh, what’s that, the fate of the entire world is at stake? Yeah yeah that’s interesting but let’s talk a bit more about my angst…”.

Thought: 2/5. May be a little harsh, maybe not. The themes aren’t interesting or novel, the plot is fairly predictable (the halfhearted whodunnit element no more succesful than halfhearted whodunnits normally are – I think a good mystery is something you have to throw yourself into, not tack on to the side). The dragons end up looking like they could be interesting in a sequel, yes, but we don’t explore them enough in this book.

Beauty: 3/5. There were one or two times I went ‘hey, that’s a good line’, and one or two times I went ‘hmm, that wasn’t the best line’, and most of the time it was pleasant but unremarkable. Nothing particularly poignant in the plot or striking in the imagery that I can remember.

Craft: 3/5. As I say, a mixed bag. On the one hand, a whole bunch of problems. On the other hand, it worked surprisingly well for a book with that many problems: it’s a very easy read, and as someone who’s tried writing I know how hard it is to write an easy read! It feels natural, which is almost always a sign of great labour and sophistication.

Endearingness: 4/5. Yes yes, I know, I’ve been very critical. But it was an enjoyable light read, and it’s just…. strangely likeable. Irritating, but strangely likeable.

Originality: 2/5. Making dragons into Vulcans is a little bit new, though not entirely. Plot and characters were very familiar. On the other hand, the style of the thing – more focus on the personal than the epic – was interesting, and likewise the first-person narration.

 

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. My awareness that there’s a degree of not-for-me-ness to this book I think for me nudges it over the line from ‘not bad’ to ‘good’… but only just. This may seem odd, given how critical I’ve been (that ‘short and inoffensive’ thing didn’t really work out, did it?), but actually that’s maybe the point: I can point out where it went wrong, but have a hard time pointing out where it went right, even though clearly it did. I think that – due either to luck or, I hope, to the ability of the author, the novel excelled its limitations. I just wish those limitations hadn’t been there in the first place to weigh it down.

I think this is an example of a theory I’ve long had, which is that a good book can in theory be a very simple thing: a vaguely likeable character, a vaguely interesting plot, more or less unobjectionable prose, and a not-offputting narrative voice (and it really does help here, I think, that the protagonist is also the narrator – I get the feeling she would be much less sympathetic in the third person)… and [spoiler redacted]’s your uncle! You don’t have to be perfect to be good.

So as a book, taken as it is, this is a good book I think. Certainly I enjoyed reading it, at the time. It’s just that unfortunately it’s not as good as it sometimes thinks it should be (or as good as some reviewers think it is, in my opinion), and that’s left me a little frustrated with it.

But you know, there’s a great cure for the frustration a reader can feel at the potential squandered by the first book of a series: writing better sequels! I’m almost certainly going to be reading the sequel to this, and I guess that’s an endorsement in its own right.

Finally, despite my humbuggery about the whole ‘YA’ thing above… this book probably will appeal more to teenagers. A lack of broader reading experience would probably make this seem more original than it is, and children are always apt to confuse raising a topic with addressing it, which would probably make the book seem a lot deeper than it is as well. And on a social point of view, while I have no time in the slightest for the ‘you have to write more books with female protagonists or you’re a misogynist’ line of thought, I do think it’s good to have fantasy novels with likeable young female protagonists who (self-harm and stalker-cipher love-at-first-sight aside) aren’t total idiots.

Although in that regard it probably doesn’t help that I’m reading Jingo at the same time and can’t help but imagine what Angua’s reaction to Seraphina would be. Or indeed the reaction of Susan, Granny, Nanny… even Agnes for that matter though there’s more crossover there. [Maybe I’m just a hell of a lot more sympathetic to those who conquer their fears about the opinions of others with “hey, it doesn’t matter so long as I like myself” than those who do it with “oh, everyone DOES love me! That’s OK then!”]

Anyway, this would probably appeal a bit more to a younger audience. [Though let’s be honest, I like it now but when I was a teenager I would have hated it. I’m a lot more childish now than I was as a child, and a lot more sympathetic toward childishness. I wonder if the real market here would not be young people themselves (who are often eager to become older people and as a result can be scathing of those who try to infantilise them), but older people who want to recapture what they imagine they were like as young people...]

AND FINALLY: as a Robin Hobb fan, I’d just like to say that while I’m irritated by the facility of the book, I’m glad that it’s possible to make bestsellers out of this more personal style of fantasy. As I may have made clear above, I’m not convinced that this is the way to go about writing a character-focused fantasy novel, but I am glad that people are at least trying.

Dance of the Dead, by Christie Golden

Ahhh, Dungeons and Dragons novels…

A while back, I decided to re-read an old D&D novel again. I mean, I have a whole stack of them, so I ought to read them occasionally. I’m not expected them to be Tolstoy, but some of them are probably fun. So this time, I picked (largely because it happened to be through chance on top of a prominent pile) Christie Golden’s Dance of the Dead.

And then I didn’t read it. Every time I thought about it, I thought… “oh, do I have to? Really?” And then I’d go and not read anything. Or get distracted by another Discworld or something. Anything but this. Because really, I know I liked this stuff when I was a kid, but do I really still want to be wading through this tripe?

…turns out, yes, yes I do. Because it turns out that this was actually a really fun read, and I should have read it earlier, when I first planned to, and I don’t know why I didn’t.

 

 

We should probably begin with some backstory. Here’s the big picture: in 1974, a pair of wargamers, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, sold around 1000 cheap paper copies of a new game they’d invented called ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, and modern role-playing games were born. In 1975, they followed up with some supplements giving brief details of two potential settings for the game: Gygax’s ‘Greyhawk’, and Arneson’s ‘Blackmoor’. In 1979, they got one of their players – established novelist André Norton – to write a novel set in Greyhawk. Although originally most of their published ‘adventures’ were placed in generic or ad hoc settings, gradually they (and the company they founded, TSR), came to focus on a number of defined ‘campaign settings’ or ‘worlds’. To launch those ‘worlds’, they comissioned tie-in novels: this began in 1984, when the Dragonlance setting was introduced through Dragons of Autumn Twilight and its sequels, but hit full speed in the first part of the 1990s. By the late ‘90s, this approach had proven suicidal (resources were being devoted to increasingly recondite niches that few people were interested in, and rather than drawing in more players as originally intended it was found that each campaign setting merely drew existing players away from the others), leading to a series of take-overs: the near-bankrupt TSR by a company called Wizards of the Coast, which in turn was consolidated into entertainment megagiant Hasbro, which in turn was consolidated into the Illithid God-Brain entertainment hyperomniultraleviathan Disney, because apparently we don’t give a shit about that whole monopolies-distorting-free-trade business anymore, but that’s a rant for another evening.

The strategy may have made no sense financially, but it brought the adoration of legions of fans, and created probably the largest edifice of linked fictional material the world has ever seen: a dozen fully-fledged campaign settings and a few dozen more sketched-out ones, a TV series, a range of films, hundreds of pre-written adventure modules, nearly a hundred computer games including bestselling and critically-acclaimed games like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Planescape: Torment, and somewhere around 600 novels, including dozens of bestsellers. For many of those of us who were teenage fantasy geeks in the ‘90s, fantasy was TSR… sure, their novels may not have been our favourites, and few of the individual novels achieved the readership of the biggest fantasy writers outside the stable, but the sheer number of their books meant that – in an age when far fewer fantasy novels were being published – whenever you finished reading another author’s books there was always a shelf of TSR you could turn to. Unparalleled in its range and diversity, the D&D line spanned Sword and Sorcery (Greyhawk), magic-rich high fantasy (Forgotten Realms), heroic epic fantasy (Dragonlance), political and military fantasy (Birthright), magitech (Eberron), combined-tech-and-magic (Blackmoor), wasteland fantasy (Dark Sun), Arthurian fantasy (Pellinore), ultra-weird space fantasy (Spelljammer), and even weirder metaphysical-with-a-big-slice-of-bizarro-urban-fantasy fantasy (Planescape), and spanning pseudo-mediaeval-Europe, pseudo-‘Orient’ (Kara-Tur), pseudo-Arabia (al-Qadim), pseudo-mesoamerica (Maztica) pseudo-ancient-mesopotamia (Dark Sun again… well, if the mesopotamian city-states were ruled by draconic god-kings draining the land of life-energy, and if the desert tribes were wandering mind-controlling elves and strange alien insect-people… which in real life they probably weren’t), and of course pseudo-bizarro-semi-Victoriana-semi-high-fantasy-semi-whateverthehellyoucanthinkof (Planescape again) pseudo-SF (Spelljammer again) and plain entirely-non-human-civilisation (eg. Council of Wyrms, there the player-characters were all dragons) environments.

And there was Ravenloft. Originating in the seminal 1983 adventure Ravenloft, in which the villain was as much an active character as the players themselves, and in its 1986 sequel, Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill, and finally developed as an open campaign setting in 1990, Ravenloft was the horror branch of the franchise. It intentionally made life difficult for its players – the original intention was for this to be somewhere that established player characters could temporarily be sent for a ‘weekend in hell’ adventure – and it inverted many of the expectations of the genre. The villains were one step ahead of the heroes, evil could hardly ever be truly defeated, victories came with collateral damage, it was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad (spells to ‘detect alignment’ simply didn’t work in Ravenloft), and the former could easily turn into the latter (via enforced game mechanics – those who do bad things become evil), or just go insane (also via mechanics). Just getting through the game without feeling morally uncomfortable is meant to be a challenge. The memorable characters of the setting are not famous heroes but famous villains. In particular, the world is divided into ‘domains’, each ruled (sometimes in a non-obvious way) by a being who has passed beyond hope of redemption: these darklords are immensely powerful, but are trapped in their domains, and in Ravenloft itself (a sort of hell-dimension that characters from other worlds could fall into), and each subject to some personalised tormenting curse*. The concept of the domain allows the setting to have a great deal of internal variety, with different domains reflecting the origins and nature of their domain lord – Saragossa is a weed-choked stretch of water haunted by a vicious pirate trapped in the form of a shark, whereas Pharazia is a patch of mud with some hovels ruled by an ancient mummy, and Dementlieu is a sophisticated early-modern urban European society.

In short: it was grim and dark long before grimdark became popular. But it was also a little bit fun. Many of its major characters were transparently filched from gothic horror novels and films (Strahd=Dracula, Mordenheim=Frankenstein, van Richten=van Helsing, Hiregaard/Malken=Jekyll/Hyde), and the setting had fun with these borrowings, as well as with a baroque, over-the-top sort of tone. It was grim enough not to seem camp, but ridiculous enough not to seem too grim.

There were twenty Ravenloft novels published (and more recently another three novels with the Ravenloft logo on them but no substantial connexion to the setting). Dance of the Dead is the third, and to be honest, by my memory of the books, things were not that promising at that point. Vampire of the Mists had plenty of fans, but was also accused of being dull, overly cliché, and unimaginative; Knight of the Black Rose, as I remember it, was just page after page after page of Lord Soth cutting lesser evil beings into pieces as he marched through the world in straight lines (accompanied by an evil werebadger).

Dance of the Dead is much more interesting.

We should be clear from the beginning that if you’re looking for reasons to dislike this book, you don’t have to look that far. I actually burst out laughing within a page or two, thanks largely to the prose, which is just so D&D I couldn’t help myself. It’s stilted and verbose, more in keeping with Dickens or the like than with a modern horror thriller, and it out-adjectives Conrad. Looking beyond the prose, there are some clunking moments of cliché, particularly in the head-smashingly conventional obligatory romance plot, and some oddly-fitting weirdness that… well, back to that in a moment.

Romance plot. If this were published today, you’d call it a paranormal romance, and it has some of the worse sins of that genre: feisty heroine falls in love at first sight and beyond reason with implausibly perfect young man, whom she instantly trusts absolutely for no reason at all just because. Oh dear.

And the weirdness? Ravenloft is horror, but it’s fantasy horror. The book starts out in the very fantasy domain of Darkon, a land packed with elves and dwarves and magical beings (as well as the lich-king Azalin and his secret police (the Kargat) of werewolves and vampires… of course, the real danger of Darkon is that if travellers stay too long they lose all memory of their lives outside Darkon and instead ‘remember’ wholly fictional new lives), and spends a fair bit of time in Souragne, a domain based on Louisiana or the Caribbean, with its own, more voodoo-influenced, sort of fantasy. Some readers may find themselves put off by mixing elves and vampires, zombies and nereids, and any vestige of sanity with talking, flesh-eating rabbits.

You could also, quite fairly, complain that the plot is basically “Mary Sue gets helped out by a Deus ex Machina”. It’s true that it basically comes down to “the heroine is wonderful and someone or other is sure to help her if there’s something she can’t do herself”. But thing is: this is Ravenloft. It’s not really about achieving particular goals, it’s about the moral journey. And in Ravenloft, there are no gods in the machine – only devils – and any sort of striking talent is just setting a character up for corruption. That’s a difficult thing to convey in a modern novel – again, it’s another way in which the book feels surprisingly anachronistic (apart from those weremink, I don’t think the original gothic really went in for weremink) – but Christie Golden is actually able to handle it pretty well here. It feels natural. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a book where victory is earned not through hard work or education but through a moral fire, a coming into the proximity of evil.

And talking of evil… one of the great elements of the Ravenloft setting is that there is always something worse out there. Little villains are overshadowed by bigger villains, who are overshadowed by the darklords, who are overshadowed by the shadowy real powers of the world. You find yourself rooting for the devil to put an end to the petty villains. And – again without getting into the plot itself but only the setting – Golden has a pretty fun devil in her back pocket here, one of the biggest devils in Ravenloft, for all that he’s overshadowed by the more famous darklords of the Core Domains. Ravenloft novels – and indeed adventures – can live at any level of villainy: some deal only with the petty local evils, some involve direct confrontations with a darklord (these rarely end well) and some even make the darklord into the protagonist (as in the pair of I, Strahd novels, the (possibly propagandistic) diaries of the setting’s wry, no-nonsense Dracula-substitute). The advantage of that is that it’s hard to know what’s going to happen: everything occurs, in essence, because it is either desired or ignored by some or other power vastly greater than the protagonists. Some readers will hate that sense of impotence; others will revel in the disquiet it provokes. Golden addresses that side of the setting extremely well, in my opinion.

 

Anyway, in more concrete terms, the book tries to overcome its handicaps of clunky prose and clichéd (they would say ‘heightened’, ‘baroque’) plot beats through a couple of tricks. One of those tricks is investing the little character work in some unexpected places, creating, surprising moments around the main narrative that I think help create an illusion of depth. Another is thinking about things just a little harder than the reader expects: several things that the reader at first might roll their eyes over do actually make sense in the end, making the reader a little more willing to accept all the other eye-rolling moments.

But the big thing is audacity. You can carry off a lot if you have enough audacity. Find the writing style too dull? Have a murder. No, have more than one murder. I say without exaggeration: for a substantial percentage of this book (until we start to seriously run out of characters and need to save some for the ending), Golden gives us an average of around one brutal death every ten pages. Try putting it down when that happens… the pace of the thing pulls you in to a point where you get used to the style. I found myself reading through at a right old pace… sure, I didn’t overwhelmingly care what happened, but I still wanted to find out! Audacity…

And audacity too with the ‘sillier’ fantasy elements. It’s as though Golden is saying: “yes, it’s a talking flesh-eating rabbit. You got a problem with that? You want to laugh. Go ahead, laugh. But if you do, I’m going to kill another character.” It’s a perfect level of self-seriousness: enough dry lines, enough dare-you-to-laugh bits of absurdity that I didn’t find it self-important or stuffy, enough that I feel I can mock the silliness without mocking the book… and yet it never lets itself crack a smile itself, never lets you forget that everything is deadly serious for the characters themselves.

And that extends to the brutality too, which at times is on a level where you don’t know whether to laugh or throw up and up just sort of shocked that it went there. I mean, at one point somebody/something wins a fight by biting through the skull of their enemy and eating their head… and they’re on our side! At another point, a zombie arm claws through a man’s chest and rips his beating heart out. And these bits aren’t over-writen and baroque, they’re dealt with as being fairly run-of-the-mill events (in gothic horror, after all, it’s what you don’t see that you’re worried about… mere gore and violence is a nice relief by comparison). It’s hard to really explain this, but… it takes a setting and a story where really terrible things can happen, and presents it as it appears to the people involved who, yes, are on some level traumatised by it perhaps, but who don’t have the time or energy to run around being melodramatic about it.

So in the end, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable book. It’s an old-fashioned, story-telling book, relying on the principle that if you tell a good story people will listen. You don’t really have to have deep and important themes, and you don’t really need beautiful and economic prose, and so long as you do have some twists and turns along the way it doesn’t even matter too much if some characters, some moments, some bits of dialogue, are quite familiar. It’s not setting out to be great literature, it’s just trying to be a fun read. I might prefer great literature… but to be honest, I’d rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else a novel that only tries to be an enjoyable read than one that pretends to the status of great literature and yet falls short.

I must read some more of my D&D novels. Unfortunately, the real curse of them is not that they’re bad, but that the quality is so much a matter of pot luck…

 

Adrenaline: 4/5. Never really thrilling, but stuff kept happening, I kept wanting to find out what happened next, and I kept reading when I had opportunities to stop.

Emotion: 2/5. The lack of sparkling quality lets it down here, as it’s not really able to hammer home the emotional moments and make me feel the pain rather than merely think about it. Of course, your mileage might vary… there’s certainly no shortage of things to feel about! I see there are some reviews out there of people crying their eyes out at points. I guess if you’re used to some easy sparkly fairy-magic romance stuff, you might easily mistake this for more of the same, and I could see how that could lead to a real punch in the gut crocodile bite through the forearm. But this is Baltimore Ravenloft, gentlemen; the gods will not save you. (Other things might).

Thought: 2/5. Not a stupid read, but deep thinking is not the point.

Beauty: 2/5. Some good strong imagery now and then.

Craft: 2/5. Does something a bit different and does it quite well. The prose is probably below par, but to give it credit it is solid – it’s stiff, but it never (ok, barring one or two purple descriptors here and there) becomes painful. Certainly a lot of books have worse writing, and once I got into it this stopped being a problem at all.

Endearingness: 4/5. I may be being generous, but I do think it’s at least a 3, and I’m happy giving it a 4. There are certainly things I don’t like about it, but there are also bits I really enjoyed. It may not be sophisticated reading, but it was fun.

Originality: 3/5. A tricky one to score. On the one hand, some bits are clunkingly by-the-book. On the other hand, some bits are clever, and on a third hand some things are nuts. So I guess a par score overall?

 

Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD.
I feel I may need to remind people here that I mean what I say: ‘not bad’ means just that, and ‘not bad’ is pretty good. I don’t call things ‘good’ unless I really think they are. A ‘Not Bad’ book is usually something I’m happy to recommend to someone who likes that kind of thing: other examples include A Game of Thrones (though the sequels are better), some of the weaker Discworld novels, the first two Feist/Wurts Empire novels, McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger (which I really liked!), and so on.

Just a little reminder there, since I think I’ve been a bit spoilt recently with unusually good books.

Anyway, Dance of the Dead might not be a very fashionable novel in 2014 – though I suspect that large numbers of the equivalent novels of today will fair rather less well with time – but I think that if you turn off the overly critical part of your mind and just read for fun, this can be perfectly enjoyable. And also leave you with a slight sense of discomfort, because this is Ravenloft, damnit.

It may be particularly of interest to those who are fans of paranormal romance or modern grimdark (although it’s a long way from being the darkest Ravenloft novel), just to see how things worked twenty years ago.

 

 

Oh, I forgot that footnote on curses. Some examples:

- Strahd von Zarovich, Lord of Barovia, is an immortal vampire, having killed his brother out of love for his brother’s fiancée. She killed herself as a way of rejecting him. Every generation, his beloved Tatyana is reincarnated (or Strahd thinks she is – it’s ambiguous the extent to which he’s a fate-haunted lost but noble soul and the extent to which he’s a psychotic lunatic), but every generation she rejects him and/or dies tragically. He thus lives forever without the one thing he truly wants.

- Alfred Timothy, Lord of Verbrek, is a werewolf who idolises the violent, merciless beast inside him (he’s even created a religion for werewolves out of it). But whenever he gives in to bestial urges – lust, bloodlust, gluttony, etc – he reverts to his natural form as a rather weedy and unimpressive human. His pride and fear for his reputation thus force him to control himself – the whole of his domain is one big orgy of werewolf sex and killing, which he can’t partake in.

- Jacqueline Renier, wererat Lord of Richemulot, is pathologically afraid of being alone. Unfortunately, being in the presence of anyone she truly loves triggers her lycanthropy and traps her in the shape of a rat. Theoretically with the right man this might not be an impediment to romance, but that’s a pretty specific lonely hearts ad…

- Ankhtepot, Lord of Har Akir, is a mummy, but wants only two things in life: rule of a great empire, and humanity. As to the first, he gets one mud-hut village. As to the second: he’s been given the ability to drain life from one person a day, with each killing granting him a day returned to life as a human. Unfortunately, he knows perfectly well that since his entire citizenry is one mud hut, if he actually uses this power he’ll very quickly find himself ruler of absolutely nobody and will never get to be human again.

- Tristan apBlanc, Lord of Forlorn, is trapped in a pair of temporal cycles, reliving two of the worst days of his (really rather awful) life for all eternity

- Yagno Petrovna, Lord of G’Henna, cannot shake the growing suspicion that the god Zhakata, for whom he has performed endless terrible deeds and in whose name he rules his nation, has all along been nothing but a figment of his own imagination

- Vlad Drakov, Lord of Falkovnia, mighty military conqueror, has finally risen to command his own nation… but nobody really cares. No matter how many times he tries invading the other domains, he’s never treated as more than a mild, ill-mannered irritation.

Legends of the Tour, by Jan Cleijne

It’s hard to know really what to think about Jan Cleijne’s Legends of the Tour. There’s no doubting that it has many virtues… but how many of them are really down to the book, and not to the events themselves? The book does just what it says, relates a few of the legendary events of the Tour de France. This means it has some of the greatest stories of the 20th century to choose from, the power of which is immense – just look, for instance, at how they are used in Krabbé’s De Renner, which I finally got around to reading (in translation, of course!) a few months ago. I wasn’t really convinced that Cleijne was adding much to the stories, to be honest. Does that matter? I suppose it depends on whether we are looking to evaluate the book as a work of art and craft, or for its enjoyability.

Part of the problem is the question of audience. Who is Legends of the Tour really for? Most likely its main readership will be cycling fans… but we know these stories already. Is it really for non-fans? They would certainly appreciate some of the stories, but is there enough here to explain both the technicalities and the symbolism of the sport? I’m not sure. I suppose the ideal reader, then, would be somewhere in between – familiar with the idea of the sport, but not yet au fait with its history. Fortunately, in this country, right now, that seems like a blossoming market…

Perhaps I should go back and begin at the beginning. Legends of the Tour is a graphic novel divided into ten chapters, in chronological order, relating some of the history of the Tour de France through its most famous moments.

First things first: the ‘graphic’ part is exceptional. Cleijne chooses to progress his art style to symbolise his eras: we begin with an imitation of sepiatone silent film, move through into glorious technicolour, and end up in a panoply of realistic hues. I can appreciate this, and admire the skill (Cleijne’s drawing style is not photo-realistic, and is somewhat sketch-like, but it conveys the events well, depicts the appearance of historical figures with remarkable accuracy, and is also able to convey thoughts and emotions through the art alone)… but I do wish more of it was drawn like the middle pages, which are stunning. The era of Coppi and Bartali is really beautifully portrayed, and I was literally stunned for a moment on turning a page when the Italian Prime Minister is calling Bartali, at the Pope’s request, to save his country: the sickly turquoise of the dejected Bartali’s hotel room explodes into the orange and red of Italy on fire with riots and protests on the eve of civil war, before Bartali filled with the holy zeal of the Papal injunction rides through bright lime-green rain and mud into a hazy white light at the end of the road. Later, the terrible xenoscape of the desert of Ventoux seems literally to glow in the fatal sun, a gleaming silver-gold, as Simpson climbs to his death. Other points are conveyed through whimsy and metaphor: a giant Cannibal is portrayed happily actually eating from a bowl filled with the bodies of the other riders, Monsieur Chrono actually rides around the outside of a giant watch, before we see inside his own nightmares as he rides his heart out looking over his shoulder at a shadowy chasing peloton where all the riders have clocks for faces. There are moments of infographic genius, as when the resolution of the 1989 Tour is explained in two very small panels at the bottom of the page: Fignon strains on his bike, sweat pouring off him as he passes the crowd, ponytail streaming in the wind; and then LeMond, crouched compactly, head encased in a scientifically-calculated helmet, nothing else in the world but him and the air that passes over him, the lines of the wind over his aerodynamic form helpfully inked in (Fignon lost the Tour in a time trial on the final day, the margin of defeat only eight seconds after three weeks of racing – aerodynamicists have since calculated that the Frenchman must have lost more than purely through the more conservative rider’s greater drag compared to the high-tech American).

There’s no doubting Cleijne’s abilities as an artist, and specifically as an illustrator. And yet I do wonder whether the book would have been better if he had been a little less clever, a little less good at conveying the meaning concisely, a little more tied to one style or mood. Yes, a book like this needs some variety, but the contrast in styles, and the contrast between high drama and amusing whimsy (the progress of LeMond and Fignon through the Tour, for instance, shown through a combined-profile chart with little smily faces superimposed on it) was for me a little too great, and became… not exactly actively offputting, but I think a barrier to full immersion.

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(It’s actually less grey in real life. It’s more black. The title circle, the shadows, the background, all sort of different shades of black)

A bigger problem is the stories Cleijne picks and how he tells them. Two of the ten chapters are very brief moments in history: van Est’s fall into the chasm (his heart may have stopped, but his watch didn’t miss a tick) and Simpson’s death in the lunar desert. The rest deal with large eras, typically through single riders: 1903-1918 (Garin and the train, Christophe and the forge), 1918-1939 (the Circle of Death, Leducq), Coppi and Bartali, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault-LeMond, Indurain, and Festina-through-to-Sky. Events that don’t directly concern the key riders tend not to be present, which makes for some shocking omissions: how can you have a book on the legends of the Tour and not include Brive-Agen? The Fall of Rivière? There is no Charly Gaul, only a little (and unflattering) Louison Bobet, no Bahamontes… no Frantz for goodness sake! Pantani is only mentioned as someone who was overshadowed by Festina. Even for the main riders, there’s a lot missing, with only one or two short anecdotes each – we don’t get to see the hubristic Anquetil riding to defeat his own teammate, for instance. Hinault in particular is badly served – his era is instead portrayed from the point of view of Zoetemelk, and then from the point of view of LeMond.

The biggest sin of the book, therefore, is that it’s not much longer. I would have liked to have seen not only more legends, but in more detail… too much of the book is told as a dry history with flashes of anecdote, rather than as actual stories. There are seven whole pages devoted to The Story of Buysse and the Circle of Death, and I wanted the book to carry on being like that… but it wasn’t.

Perhaps this would have been less of an issue for me if the words had been able to carry more of the strain. Don’t get me wrong – the writing isn’t bad. Well, the main body of the prose isn’t bad, and the snippets of dialogue, while arguably not good, are good enough for what they need to do. But the writing does not excel, and Cleijne seems reluctant to write too much. Sometimes, when he gives himself enough pictures to tell the story – as with Buysse – that works, but when he’s in his more accelerated, history-in-brief mode, he doesn’t have enough panels to succeed through the art and he doesn’t allow himself words – and his words are too dry – to really succeed through the words.

The result is not bad. Quite the contrary – this is clearly an enjoyable book, and will probably be enjoyable whether you’re a fan already or not. But the thing is, given this material and given Cleijne’s evidently immense artistic and illustrative talent, the book should be a lot better than probably enjoyable. It’s like reading the 50-page comic-book version of Complete Greek Mythology… yes, it can be a fun enough read in its own right, but it could have been so much more!

I have a couple of additional quibbles. If it seems like all I’m saying is quibbling, well… I wish I weren’t, because it’s entirely unfair. But unfortunately what’s good about this book is that the illustrations are fantastic and it’s about the history of the Tour. And those are two very big things, but unfortunately there’s not much I can say about them. If I went on about the legends of the Tour themselves, I’d be in danger of saying more about them in the review than you’ll find in the book; and I’m afraid I don’t have the art criticism knowledge to explain exactly why or how the illustrations are so good. So it’s another case of the old paradox, where the good, no matter how good, is hard to talk about, whereas all the minor flaws can be enumerated ad nauseam.

But I do have a couple of quibbles, related to one another. One is that Cleijne does play favourites somewhat, even beyond his selection of characters: Coppi, for instance, gets a full send off and what-happened-after, whereas Bartali just disappears out of the story without a mention. And in a similar vein (no pun intended) I was disappointed with the way Cleijne handles doping: of course, there is no solution to this that will please everybody, and I don’t want the entire thing to be about doping. But this is far too much the omerta view of history. Sure, the final chapter deals with Festina, Armstrong and after, and chapeau to the author for including a little glimpse of the Passion of Christophe Bassons (the only Festina rider not to take drugs – he was offered a contract of €270,000 per month conditional on taking EPO, and he turned it down for a salary one-tenth that size riding clean). I would have liked more – I think it if understates how Bassons was psychologically tortured by the rest of the peloton for speaking up against Armstrong (his entire team refused to talk to him, shake his hand, or for most of the time acknowledge his existence, and in more practical term they took the extraordinary step of refusing to share win bonuses with him), and for the full sainthood story you could fast-forward to the tormented Bassons (he quit cycling entirely after a few years) not only publically forgiving Armstrong but sympathising with the ostracism that Armstrong now experiences. In fact I think this illustrates my earlier point about the book not being sufficiently storyish – I would have taken Bassons and made him the protagonist of his own little ‘legend’, and this wouldn’t necessarily have taken many more pages than are actually devoted to him. It’s not necessarily wordcount that’s the issue, but presentation: Cleijne uses Bassons (and most of the stories in the book) as an example, a for instance, rather than plonking us down with a character at a point in time and showing us things from their point of view.

Anyway, well done for having Bassons at all. But not so well done, for instance, in the strong implication that EPO use began only at the end of Indurain’s era (though well done for that marvellous little drawing of Bjarne Riis!)… in reality, the huge improvements took place at the beginning of the Indurain era and Indurain was among the finest examples of them. Sure, I don’t blame Cleijne for not coming right out and accusing Indurain – even if “everybody” says he probably doped, he never failed a test, I don’t think there are any specific eye-witness testimonials incriminating him, and everything is circumstantial, so a book that flat-out says he doped is likely to irritate a whole bunch of lawyers. But Cleijne doesn’t just not say it, he almost goes as far as he can to say the opposite. Likewise, there’s no mention of Fignon doping, although he later confessed to it (not EPO or transfusions, though, just pills). In that huge section on Zoetemelk – and I don’t begrudge him that section, since finishing every Tour for nearly 20 years is a big achievement by itself, and everyone loves eternal seconds finally getting a win – there’s no mention of the fact that Zoetemelk not only popped pills but transfused blood. And this is doubly problematic because – no, wait, trebly problematic! – because Cleijne talks about the very same Tour where Zoetemelk was penalised ten minutes for being caught doping, but doesn’t mention that fact. It’s one thing to ignore an admission, another thing to ignore an official sanction; likewise, it’s one thing to brush past a year (he can’t tell every story) but another to include a year and fail to mention the most famous thing about it, even if it does cast a negative light on one of his favourite riders. And while we’re talking admissions: Cleijne’s happy to follow the omerta view of history and admit that Simpson doped (and in part died for it) while ignoring the doping of everyone else in that era. Anquetil gets an entire chapter but there’s no mention of he himself saying that it was impossible to win the Tour without doping. There’s no mention in an earlier era of Il Campionissimo’s doping, even though that’s a key part of that legend: the modern, scientific, experimental, rule-breaking Coppi against the pious old conservative Bartali who relied on praying as he climbed.

While I’m at it, I’d have liked to have seen a little more content about the changing face of the Tour itself, and its format, over time. But you can’t have everything.

What you can have, though, are some really good illustrations of rainfall. Seriously, Cleijne’s a master of storms, showers, mud and cold: I actually felt cold and damp just looking at the pictures, for all that they’re more suggestive than detailed.

In the end, then, Cleijne shows – if there was ever any doubt – that there is a great graphic novel to be made out of the Tour… or at least, a great graphic short story collection. A Tourmarillion, as it were. And if ever that gets made, Cleijne also shows that he ought to be near the top of the list of artists called in to illustrate it. But this book isn’t really it.

It is, however, nice to look at, and competantly written with some really good moments. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in either the Tour (/sport/life) or graphic novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some great stories, but told too much as though by a historian, rather than by a storyteller… too cold and curt at times.

Emotion: 2/5. Likewise. Even with something like the death of Simpson, it’s difficult to get caught up emotionally in the death of a sketched-out figure you’ve only seen a dozen panels of, and the words don’t bridge that gap.

Thought: 2/5. Doesn’t really need much thinking.

Beauty: 5/5. Beautiful artwork, beautiful stories.

Craft: 4/5. Full marks for the artwork, but the writing, plotting, pacing and so on, while broadly competant, are nothing special.

Endearingness: 4/5. Just a bit too short, too light, too piecemeal, too distant for me to love. On the other hand, the stories are epic and the illustrations charming.

Originality: 2/5. They’re the Legends of the Tour. The word ‘legends’ there suggests that originality is not the priority.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. I feel a little bad about the tone of this review, which isn’t exactly positive. Because yes, this is a good book. If you’re debating whether to get it, the answer is yes. [There are people who probably wouldn’t enjoy it at all, but then you probably wouldn’t be considering it in the first place...] It’s just that it’s hard not to judge it against what it maybe could have been. Or perhaps we should say: what it maybe could be. After all, this is Cleijne’s first graphic novel. Maybe one day he’ll decide to do an updated, longer, more detailed version! We can only hope. Maybe he could even hire Krabbé to do the writing…

Until then, this is a good (which is rare enough in itself) but not great book. On the other hand, it’s not like it’s got a whole lot of competition in the “graphic novel adaptations of Tour de France history” genre, so far as I’m aware, so you may as well get it if that’s something you might be into.

Oh, and it’s got a really beautiful textured black cover. [Or it does if you get it off the press and seal it in a vacuum. Otherwise, you just have to breathe on it and that pristine beautiful black will mark in small but irritating ways. But given the normal standards of book covers, I’m grateful they put the effort in, at least...]

The weather…

It’s almost embarrassing how happy I am right now, for no good reason, and without any adequate excuse. It is pouring rain, flooding with rain, and earlier I was outside and soaked through and tired and hungry and cold. And now I am inside, in clean, dry, clothes, and it’s warm, and I’m not hungry anymore, and as a result I am completely happy.

Sometimes life can be extremely straightforward.

CDs: Part and Elgar

Alina (Spiegel im Spiegel, Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel, Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel), by Arvo Pärt

A strange little CD; it’s a CD seemingly intended to be a CD – rather than other CDs, which are only recordings of music intended for other formats. True, neither of these two Pärt pieces were designed originally for this presentation, but the CD as a whole is presented as, as it were, a single piece of music in a rondo form. The repetitions are not simply reproductions of the same recordings, but were extracted from countless hours of recorded repetition of these pieces. To be honest, my ear is too blunt to really appreciate the slight differences.

Both pieces are from the late 1970s, and are in the tintinnabular style – Für Alina in particular was one of the first attempts at tintinnabulation, while the more famous Spiegel im Spiegel is from a few years later. To be honest, the CD displays both the good and the bad of tintinnabuli: both pieces, particularly Spiegel im Spiegel, are beautiful and serene; yet after an hour of beautiful white light and serene stillness, one does come to wish for a little ugly motion, a little ungainly change, some saving flaw to draw the attention. Spiegel im Spiegel itself is most often used, and probably best used, for a minute or two of beauty or tearfulness, a momentary pause in the action of some film or TV show – and this is very proper, because it is the sort of music that comes closest to a sort of Schopenhauerian clarity-through-the-veil-of-Maya, a momentary ecstasy of nothingness that can be joyous or painful or even both at once. When I listen to the whole of Spiegel im Spiegel, however, I fear I lack the mystical training necessary to fully appreciate it: sometimes it’s difficult with a composer like Pärt who has his mystical personal union with God going on – it feels like overhearing someone else’s conversation. When you put three renditions of Spiegel im Spiegel alongside two renditions of Für Alina… well, I’m very impressed that the result never becomes annoying. Most music, after an hour of it without change or variation I’d be wanting to smash things, but Pärt really does achieve something beautiful in his simplicity. Unfortunately, stale beauty fades into a background pleasantry that never angers but fails to keep the attention. It becomes easy listening; it becomes good music, fantastic music, to play in a lift.

It’s a good CD, for what it is. In fact I’ll go further: it’s a brilliant CD for what it is. Anyone who wants to explore how minimalism can be beautiful, or who is in to all those ‘relaxing classics’ compilations, and maybe anyone who wants a mystical spiritual form of modernism, those people should all buy this CD. I’m glad I own it, there are always times when something like this is good to have around.

But… I remained unpassionate about it.

 

Symphony No. 2 in E-flat major, by Elgar

Sorry… I don’t get it. Don’t understand it. There are moments here and there that sound like Elgar, confident and melodious and distinctive… but for the most part it’s a whole lot of whistling this and clashing that. Although apparently parallels have been drawn with Brahms, Mahler and Wagner (three composers I also am not greatly fond of), the piece seems very modern to me: slightly unusual time signatures, hemiolas, offbeat accompaniment, tonal ambiguity, reliance on the subdominant rather than the dominant, whole-tone scales…

It’s certainly not just modernist showing-off, though. Elgar was passionate about the work, which he said displayed the whole of his soul. I’m afraid I can’t interpret it, however.

It’s a strange thing about classical music – well, music in general, although most pop music is so similar as a whole that it’s not encountered much in that area – that there is an immense gulf between understanding a piece of music and not understanding it. You can hear the same notes, but the experience is utterly different – exactly like hearing the same words in the same language, depending on whether or not it is a language you understand. It’s an experience I’ve only otherwise had in reading poetry, most of which I admit I just don’t get.

I’m somewhat relieved, on looking this up, that I’m not alone when it comes to this symphony. Two newspaper reviews of the time I would largely find myself in agreement with:

“Elgar’s original charm and his power of surprising us into wonder have diminished rather than grown as his craftsmanship and subtlety of fantastic variation have increased … we can hardly say that the work contains any melody in the full sense of the word. Neither can we say with confidence that it quite vanquishes the impression of coldness and hardness.” (Manchester Guardian)

“One cannot listen to even the most eloquent pleading for nearly an hour without fatigue, and that was the first impression this music made – of restless, unpitying earnestness…not only is no concession made to the sensuously pleasing, but little regard is paid to the psychological need for contrast, for relief. It is a devotee exhorting a congregation assumed also to be devotees.” (The Times)

It wasn’t without its fans at the time, of course. My liner notes suggest that it has become more popular than his more populist 1st, over time – I wonder whether that is simply a reflection of the shrinking of the interested market, the falling away of the general public from symphony-listening in general, leaving only the ‘experts’. In any case, it’s not a symphony that is widely known by the public today, and I’m struggling to lament that fact.

A Song of Ice and Fire

For the sake of neatness and convenience, I should probably have an index page for these reviews. So here it is.

 

A Game of Thrones
A Clash of Kings
A Storm of Swords
A Feast for Crows
A Dance with Dragons

 

Yeah, there are only reviews of the beginning and the end right now. This is because I read the first three ten years ago, and then re-read them before the fourth book, but that was also before I began blogging reviews of what I was reading. With the TV show coming out, and the fifth book, I re-read the first volume to get myself back into the world, but got distracted from following on with the later volumes. I may get around to it eventually. Or not. If anyone’s really curious, I thought the second and third books got progressively better as they went on, but the fourth book was a big disappointment.