Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy; by Mark Witton

 

Let’s begin with the obvious question: no, I don’t know why I bought this book.

I’m not a pterosaurologist, a pterosaur enthusiast, or even a palaeontology enthusiast in general. I had a couple of dinosaur books as a kid, but that’s all (favourite dinosaur: Ankylosaurus. Big, dumb, slow, inoffensive, boring, but more or less invulnerable. My kind of lizard).

I don’t make a habit of reading a bunch of non-fiction on random topics. I’d like to, but I don’t. I do read widely online, but I rarely get around to actually reading one of the many non-fiction books I own, let alone going out and buying a brand-new hardback.

So what gives?

Like I say, I’m not sure. I was trying to find out some stuff about pterosaurs one day (as you do), since I knew virtually nothing about them; came across the guy’s site; liked his style; saw his book was just out; saw the stellar reveiws for the book; bought the book in a moment of whimsy.

And the result?

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Well, last time I did a non-fiction book, I decided to give myself a fairly strict framework for reviewing, so I’m going to follow that again here (although I’m probably also going to put up a brief ‘what I learned’ post for my own reference). So to begin:

What Is This Book?

This is a book about pterosaurs. Its subject matter is broad: everything we know about pterosaurs. Its intended audience is also broad: anybody who might be interested in pterosaurs.

What I mean by that is that this is an unusual style of book. There are many things about this book that suggest that it is intended for a lay audience: it is written mostly in a conversational style, complete with occasional jokes, and, particularly early on, it explains a lot of its terminology as it goes along, even words that must be second nature to palaeontologists. It also has paintings to illustrate, which are in an approachable, unpedantic, slightly… ‘childish’ sounds insulting, but it’s also fairly accurate, in that there are bold colours, broad brushtrokes, and more interest in conveying attitude and impression than in recording the finest details in a precise manner (which is probably a good thing, given that we don’t know a lot of the details). So it doesn’t really read like a dry textbook for pterosaurology experts. On the other hand, particularly later on, Witton sometimes forgets to explain his terms, and even ignoring the technical items the vocabulary still made me reach for the dictionary a couple of time. There are many, long, repeated detailed discussions of osteological analysis, with many uses of words like ‘zygopophosis’. So while you maybe don’t need to know about palaeontology to understand it, you may find that either a basic understanding of it or a high tolerance for not really understanding everything may be very useful (it may be a step too advanced for all but the most obsessive dinosaur-fan child, for instance). And by all accounts this is actually one of the top resources on pterosaurology, containing pretty much all the information available (it doesn’t go into every little detail, of course; it’s an overview of the topic). So it sort of aims itself at every part of the market, from interested laymen right up to workers in the field.

I think that maybe the explanation for this is that pterosaurology is still a small enough field that you can be a serious scholar and a populariser at the same time – and this book is both a serious and technical overview and an attempt to popularise the field to those who know little or nothing about it. Indeed, the preface to the book frames the entire thing as an attempt to explain to people why there is an international conference on pterosaurology, and why he’s going, by trying to demonstrate to his audience both the variety and the ‘sheer awesomeness’ of pterosaurs.

What is This Book Good For?

The primary reason I think why people might want to read this book is that it will tell them things about pterosaurs. In that regard, it’s very good. There’s a lot of information here about pterosaurs, and while I wouldn’t exactly say it was an easy read, it’s a much, much easier read than you might expect a technical book about pterosaurs to be. The writing does its best to be approachable, and even when things do get difficult the light sprinkle of wry humour goes a long way to smoothing things over.

It’s also very attractive. The aforementioned paintings vary from brightly inoffensive to really very pretty; Witton (who painted them himself) tries to give his models character and personality, and largely succeeds. In fact, while the simple style of the artwork means it may not be hanging in a gallery any time soon, I think it’s perfect science illustration. So often people think that technical illustration should be dry, precise, detailed… but the precision and the detail, the caveats, are already in the text. What illustration should instead be doing is conveying meaning – making the words spring to life, showing their significance. You don’t need precision for that, you need spirit; and Witton does a very good job of this. Whether it’s, say, a Sordes tensing its muscles to pounce, or a size comparison that conveys the dimensions, attitude, demeanor, and ultimate ridiculousness of a Tupandactylus by showing his fiancée feeding one a mouse, or just the way slight differences in shading in a ‘bauplan’ show the greater shoulder strength of a Campilognathoides compared to its relatives, the illustrations don’t just feel like an obligation on the author, but a joy, and genuinely help to convey the sense of the text, while also, in their attractiveness and occasional whimsy, helping to lighten what I might otherwise have found somewhat heavy text.

More than that, though, the attractiveness extends throughout the book. It feels like a book where somebody has actually taken the time to think of the reader, and not assumed that the readers have superhuman powers of concentration. The type is not too tightly set, there’s plenty of white space (bright white shiny space, in fact), the flow of text is broken up by frequent illustrations (paintings, technical drawings, maps, photographs, etc), there are superfluous but visually pleasing chapter-specific bright strips of colour at the top of each page, and so on. The author wanted the book to look nice, and largely succeeded. Even the cladograms (don’t worry, you don’t need to know the word ‘cladogram’ to read this!) are not heavy, businesslike geometry patterns, but instead are delicate caligraphic ornaments. This doesn’t feel like merely a scholarly exercise; it feels serious, to be sure, and, yes, scholarly, but it also feels halfway to being a coffee-table book for your guests to see.

So it’s a book that lets you feel that you’ve learned something, but it doesn’t make you work too hard for it, and it tries to make the experience as pleasant as possible along the way. I think there are a lot of people who might like this book.

I should also say that the book is unusually good at conveying the enthusiasm of the author. Not only is the author’s passion for his subject clear (but not in an intrusive or obsessive way, I felt), but he makes the reader feel like they’re getting in on the ground floor of an exciting project. The fossils he studies may have been around for a hundred million years, but pterosaurology is clearly a booming field – there may only be ‘a few dozen’ experts so far, but that’s more than ever before, and new findings, both from the earth and from computers, seem to be revolutionising the field. I was shocked by how many of the dates given were in the last twenty, ten, even five years, whether the dates of groundbreaking analyses or of unprecedented new fossil discoveries. It’s clearly an exciting time to be a pterosaurologist, and that excitement pervades the book. Of course, part of that is the luck of the subject matter rather than a virtue of the book, but I feel it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. And as for the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if this book helps inspire a good number of the next generation of experts.

What Problems Does This Book Have?

Well, its virtues are also its vices, I think. Writing for a broad audience is very difficult, and Witton doesn’t always manage it. Sometimes (though not for the most part) the humour feels forced and unnecessary, and too many times I felt thrown in at the deep end, with vocabulary insufficiently explained, and with not enough illustrations. This was never a fatal problem for me – I didn’t feel I didn’t know what was going on, just that I didn’t know exactly what was going on – but I think it is a noticeable flaw (albeit a very understandable one).

There are also problems arising from the format of the book. On the large scale, the book begins with a series of chapters introducing pterosaurs one bit at a time (what they are, what their bones are like, what their soft bits were probably like, how they flew, etc), followed by chapters on each major group of pterosaurs one at a time; each of these chapters in turn largely recapitulates the overview contents, modified and more detailed for the specific type of pterosaur being considered.

This structure creates two major problems and one minor one. One major problem is that it felt in the first half of the book as though I were only getting half the picture. I was learning all this abstract stuff in order to understand the pterosaurs that would be introduced later on, but I kept itching to actually get to the pterosaurs, and to see how this abstract material was going to be applied. The second major problem is with the second half of the book: since each chapter follows the same format, and each follows a similar format to the first half of the book as a whole, there’s a great deal of repetition involved. Which can sometimes become a little… boring. I have to confess, my eyes did glaze over during some of the osteology discussion. The minor problem is that ‘major pterosaur groups’ are defined cladistically, or at least in accordance to what Witton considers to be the correct cladistic analysis of pterosaur relations, not by how interesting groups are or how big they were, which sort of feels like it implies some false equivalencies, and because the chapters are ordered according to his phylogeny, he hasn’t ended up with the right chapters in the right places, from a narrative point of view. When you’re finding a book repetitive, the last thing you need is a bunch of families with few distinguishing features about which little is known. [Though he does manage to end with the azhdarchids, which I guess was sort of inevitable…]

Another problem with the content was the relatively lack of a geographically and chronologically cohesive picture of the pterosaur forms of life. There is a chapter on the rise and fall of pterosaurs, complete with a simple chronological diagram, but it is tucked away at the end – a logical place to put the end of the pterosaurs, I suppose, but I felt that that was information that would be more useful earlier in the book. And when it came, I felt there wasn’t enough of it. I’d have had a lot more illustrations of chronology. Likewise, synchronically there were occasional mentions of this pterosaur being found alongside that pterosaur, but there was no cohesive account of this – I could tell you now a bunch of facts about different types of pterosaur, but I probably couldn’t tell you, for a given date, what pterosaurs you’d have found and where.

Finally, I would have liked to have seen just a little more behind the curtain. Witton gives a lot of conclusions, and he does seem to give a pretty fair accounting of why he chooses one theory over another, at least on the major questions. But as a non-palaeontologist I’d have liked a little more info on exactly how people come up with these theories in the first place. There’s a lot of ‘certain features of the humerus indicate…’, but relatively little specification of what features those are and why. This is particularly an issue on the taxonomy side. Witton gives an awful lot of reason to doubt the conclusions of pterosaurologists – lots of examples of them being slightly wrong, very wrong, totally wrong, and so wrong that they can’t tell the difference between a pterodactyl and a crocodile. Not to mention being temporarily mislead by fake fossils. It would have been nice to have had more on the other side, explaining exactly why people are so confident that this is a strange and unusual whateveritismajoid and not a different thing altogether.

Oh, and I don’t normally do this but: this book seriously could do with more proofreading. There are too many typos for a book that otherwise seems to have received a lot of love and attention – they’re not on every page, by any means, but there’s probably at least a dozen. Unfortunately, they are most common in the early chapters for some reason – if it had been the other way around, I might not have noticed, but when there are typos in the opening pages, it sort of sets the tone. Again, I don’t want to make this a bigger thing than it is, but it should be mentioned.

So in Summary?

Ultimately, these complaints are largely quibbles, and to the extent that they are serious they are inevitable – it’s just not possible to write a book that satisfies every possible reader. Trade-offs have to be made. The result is something that, read in an uncharitable fashion, might unfortunately perhaps be considered to fall between two stools – not detailed or Serious enough to be useful to experts, not simple and unchallenging enough to be useful to ignoramuses like me. But I think that for the most part the opposite is true: that this is a useful and enjoyable overview to meet all needs (though of course, not being a pterosaurologist, I can’t promise that experts will get anything out of it; however, more knowledgeable reviewers than me seem positive about it).

Verdict:

Readability: 3/4. For a book on a recondite subject, with oodles of technical vocabulary and an inevitably (given its structure and aims) high degree of repetitiveness, it’s actually very readable. An interested layman should mostly be able to understand everything, perhaps minus the occasional detail. If more scholarly science books were written like this, I’d read more of them. [Well, I wouldn’t, but I’d feel worse about not reading them]

Informativeness: 3/4. Generally, packs a lot of information into a fairly small and unthreatening book. The amount of information you can get out of this is, however, limited both by the nature of the book (a general overview rather than a detailed analysis of one particular aspect of the subject) and by the state of the field, which is a long way from working out all the details.

Overall: 6/8.

P.S. and always good(/bad) to see the unkillable “W: X, Y, Z” format for academic titles lumber on.

A Complete Discworld Re-Read Project

I’ve recently decided to…   OK, so I actually started this almost a year ago. It took about six months to realise I should probably put them all on one page for the sake of convenience. Aaand another little while to actually do it. Don’t hold your breath, there’s plenty of opportunity for something to go wrong yet between now and when I hit the ‘publish’ button… … but, assuming that this does actually get published, here we go.

It’s pretty self-explanatory, I’m re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. In order (mostly). All of them. I got this idea a few years ago when Adam (see! not just me that fails to put up helpful index pages! On the other hand, unlike me, his blog is easily searchable by author name…) came up with it (hopefully, unlike him, I’ll actually finish…), and then finally got spurred into action when I saw that Nathan was doing it too (both more quickly than me and in a far more organised fashion).

So, here you can find reviews for:

The Colour of Magic
The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites
Mort
Sourcery
Wyrd Sisters
Pyramids
Guards! Guards!
(read out of order because I couldn’t find my copy)
Eric
Moving Pictures

Reaper Man
Witches Abroad
Small Gods
Lords and Ladies
Men at Arms
Soul Music I
Interesting Times
(finally found and read after Feet of Clay…)
Maskerade
Feet of Clay
Hogfather (temporarily skipped; however, I did write this review of it a few years before I started this re-read)
Jingo

The Last Continent
Carpe Jugulum
The Fifth Elephant
The Truth
Thief of Time
The Last Hero
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated
Rodents (Read for the first time)
Night Watch
The Wee Free Men 
(Read for the first time)
Monstrous Regiment
A Hat Full of Sky
(Read for the first time)
Going Postal
Thud!
Wintersmith
(Never Yet Read)
Making Money
Unseen Academicals (not technically part of the re-read, but I have reviewed this before, way back in ’09)
I Shall Wear Midnight
(Never Yet Read)
Snuff (again, I reviewed this when it came out)
Raising Steam
(Never Yet Read)
The Shepherd’s Crown (Not Yet Published)
This may take a while… In the meantime, those interested in Pratchett may want to check out my other Pratchett reviews. So far, that means reviews of all three Johnny Maxwell novels, and of The Carpet People. Shortly after Pterry’s death, I also put up my eulogy/analysis, ten reasons why people are so upset about his death. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, you can find all of my book reviews on this page here.

Fool’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

And here we are now, at the end of the tale of the Fitz and the Fool.

[Except we’re not. Because despite all the protestations to the contrary over the last ten years, Fool’s Fate is not the end, and the next installment, Fool’s Assassin, is out next year. Which is to me a source of both fear and joy. But anyway, let’s pretend for now that this is the end…]

Fool’s Fate is a very strange book. I think I said in my review of the previous book, The Golden Fool, that the climax(es) of that book occured halfway through the book, leaving the book itself with surprisingly little ending; well, I think now that the second half of The Golden Fool was the beginning of a new book, and the first half of Fool’s Fate is the logical second half of that book. Because to say that the climax of Fool’s Fate is halfway through the novel is an understatement. Halfway through the novel we get a series of scenes that are effectively the climax to the first half of the book and the second half of the last, and the climax to the trilogy as a whole, and the climax to all nine Realm of Elderlings books. This is the big bang. And then we get…

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…epilogue. It’s not called an epilogue, but it’s the same material that other authors would have in an epilogue. Now, some authors have their epilogues be one page long. Some have an entire chapter, ten pages of epilogue. Some have massive, sprawling epilogues dealing with every possible loose end, a hundred pages long!

…and then there’s the epilogue to Fool’s Fate, which at somewhere between 250 and 300 pages depending on where exactly you consider the climax, is longer than most novels outside the fantasy genre.

It doesn’t feel entirely fair to go on about this structural peculiarity right from the gun. It’s a huge and complicated novel with a lot that could be said about it. But let’s be honest, the pacing and the structure are the azhdarchid in the room (sorry, just been reading about pterosaurs).

On the positive side, the structure gives us the benefit of surprise. Even going in to this knowing how it worked, I was fooled again – the slow, deliberate pace that feels as though it will lift us all the way to the final pages suddenly bursts into chaos and confusion at a surprisingly early point, creating a pretty thrilling climax.

And the epilogue isn’t without worth either. Far from it. This is a character-centred novel, and Hobb uses the long epilogue section both to develop character in response to the earlier events and to show us how characters have changed. It also gives us a lot of the material that has been promised to us throughout the series but perpetually delayed, and without which the book would feel like something of a con. And it’s surprisingly gripping, too. Authors who feel they can’t excite their audiences without fights and shocks and thrills would do well to read this. Hobb hasn’t forgotten that the heart of drama is relationship, and this may be 250 pages of talking about emotions and developing relationships, but if anything it’s more compelling than the action scenes were.

But it’s just too long. Yes, I was gripped, but there comes a point, without anything happening or any prospect of anything happening in future, where the reader moves from “I can’t put this down until I find out what happens next” to a less satisfying “I can’t put this down until the damn thing finally ends!” It’s not the writing, it’s not the content, it’s the structure – people just aren’t built to take in the scenary when they’re gliding to a stop on a rollercoaster.

It’s why so many people don’t like the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings, however necessary people (myself included) insist they are. And this is like The Lord of the Rings, if instead of coming home to the Shire and finding things terribly wrong and in need of fighting, the hobbits instead came home and went around meditating on life and death and having long, awkward conversations with all the hobbits who had stayed behind. Twice. Because there is a sting in the tail here – the main result of which is that the hero needs to go around having all those conversations a second time as a result of what happens.

It isn’t ‘boring’ exactly, but it’s… not right.

And then there’s the end.

I have only thrown one book in my life. This wasn’t it. But I very nearly did throw this one right across the room. What held me back was probably less the lack of rage, and less the veneration of books, and more the concern that since this was an 800-page hardback, the wall might not be able to survive the encounter.

The second time I read this series, I loved the end to bits.

So this time, the third time? I can see both sides.

The main reason I hated the ending the first time (aside from the common Hobb flaw of an overly pat and neat conclusion) was, in hindsight, the way it completely tore up all my memories of the end of the Farseer Trilogy (which was rushed and deeply flawed, but also incredibly poignant). More than that, the ending of this novel seemed to negate everything that had gone before. I felt it was a betrayal not only of the first trilogy but of the second, a horrible, terrible, unnecessary, probably money-driven betrayal. Like when the studios ripped up The Magnificent Ambersons and added a happy ending instead. That sort of atrocity.

On a second and third re-reading, however, I’ve come to see that the ending wasn’t a sudden betrayal at all, but an inevitability. The whole of Tawny Man was headed toward that ending. I just hadn’t noticed. That’s because to a large extent not only the ending but the entire trilogy are largely positioned as a re-analysis of the assumptions of the first trilogy. Those of us, myself included, who bought into both the decisions of Fitz in the first trilogy and the assessements of Fitz-the-narrator in that trilogy (it’s important to remember that although the narrator in the first trilogy is writing long after the events, he’s still writing before the events of Tawny Man, with the narrator of Tawny Man living at some time even later) have had a bumpy ride at times as old sureties have been re-assessed. In that light, the ending is simply the final nail in the coffin of an old assumption. That’s why I loved it the second time around, precisely because it challenged me (in particular, many of the things that younger Fitz thought of as being mature and adult are now reassessed as childish and naive, and sometimes vice versa).

But on a third reading: I can appreciate what Hobb is trying to do, but I don’t feel she does it in the correct way. The ending is far too neat – not just because neatness is often a flaw in an ending, but specifically because neatness in a controversial ending is a form of arrogance: it’s a high-handed declaration that not only is the author right and the reader wrong, but there isn’t even any room for doubt or complications. That’s it, case closed, all done.

Specifically, and trying to avoid spoilers here, I think the novel should have ended Fitz’s story, as it were, one step earlier – leaving the ending that we got as a possibility, a clearly-announced potential future development, but not as a fait accompli. This would have largely gotten across Hobb’s point while not so greatly alienating some readers, and leaving more of a sense of there being some unfinished business. And doing this would have allowed Hobb to instead give us more time focusing on the most tantalising relationship in the trilogy, the one that really ought to be dealt with more fully before we move on to the ending we were given.

As a result, I end up suspecting that my opinion of this may change considerably, in either direction, next year, when we pick up the story again. To me, it comes down to this: will the Fitz we see next admit that he was wrong here, will he deny that he was wrong in the face of all the evidence, or will the events of this trilogy be left as they are while Fitz moves on to new adventures? I’m not necessarily hoping that Fitz will repudiate all his character growth and changes in opinion and revert to how he was at the start of the trilogy, not at all – but I would really like to see some sign that this new Fitz isn’t right about everything either, that perhaps he only replaced one over-simplistic point of view with another. In short, I want the new books to re-evaluate the events and beliefs of Tawny Man in the same way that Tawny Man re-evaluated Farseer. And if that happens, my problems with the ending of Tawny Man will dwindle to a very small residue.

[Some people find the ending of the book not only thematically controversial and overly simplistic, but also highly implausible. I can certainly see their argument there – I agreed with them on my first read. But after some consideration I don’t think this is fair. This argument has largely bought in too far to Fitz’s earlier assumptions – some things he considers implausible, tells us to be implausible, are perhaps more likely all along than Fitz thought. I think if we consider the situation from the point of view of characters other than Fitz, there is nothing impermissably implausible here.]

[[And yes, I am aware that sometimes in trying to avoid spoilers yet still trying to talk about things, I probably end up being more teasing and frustrating and annoying than if I’d just given names and dates upfront. Sorry about that. Fortunately, there’s a cure – go back to the beginning of the Realm of Elderlings books and read through to the end, and my vague gesturing will have been completely forgotten by the time you get to the relevant chapters!]]

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Can I talk about the rest of the book now?

Well, OK, but again I have to start with a complaint. Namely, one particular climactic chapter where (some of) the Good Guys meet (some of) the Bad Guys, and learn (some of) their Evil Plans.

There is much twirling of moustaches and evil cackling.

It’s godawfully terrible.

Doubly terrible, frankly, for how much nuance and sophistication has gone into all the rest of the characterisation in this book. And then that whole approach gets thrown out of the window for a little moment, in favour of cliché and hamfistedness.

Why? How can such a good writer go so wrong? Well, I think the roots of the problem are a deeper issue Hobb has with good and evil. Hobb’s novels are always filled with moral complexity and ambiguity, that’s what gives a lot of the emotion and vividness to her characters and the details of events; yet her epic plots get their compelling drive from moral clarity. In order to make us care about the big stuff – and to make us agree that sometimes the big stuff has to overrule all that little stuff that we’re so invested in – she needs the big stuff to ultimately come down to good and evil. And in order to bring clarity to complexity, she has to cut through the knot. In Farseer, this is done firstly by making the Red Ship Raiders be (almost) entirely a faceless and motiveless external force of destruction (which she gets away with by having them be so peripheral to most of the events) and by having Regal come dangerously close to being a moustache-twirling villain (which she gets away with in my opinion (some feel she doesn’t) through the nuances of characterisation she’s able to give him over the course of three novels). In Liveships, this is done less succesfully and more obviously by using ‘slavery’ (poorly defined and explained, with no real examination of its social or economic nature) as such an unambiguous Big Bad that everything and everyone else can ultimately be defined through their relation to it, giving the series a clear moral compass (anything that reduces slavery is good, anything that increases it is bad). But in Tawny Man, Hobb ‘s vision is her most challenging yet, with the future desired by the ‘good guys’ actually looking really, seriously unappealling. To her credit, Hobb recognises this explicitly, with many characters expressing doubts and second thoughts… so how can she get her readers to accept unconditionally that this is the ‘good’ outcome and its opposite is ‘bad’?

By making the guys who want the opposite outcome incomparably evil, of course. Flawlessly evil. Evil, as in embodying every possible complaint from risqué clothing decisions through to totalitarian fascism, stopping off at torture and an unconscionable lack of respect for fine art works along the way. The Bad Guys are designed to push every possible button the reader might have, to make it impossible to support them. And they have to do all of this in, basically, one chapter.

It’s stupid.

To explain exactly how stupid it is, I’ll use an analogy. You write a story about a political activist who is in favour of imposing crushing import tariffs on foreign manufacturers. In the story, your hero gets into a debate with a rival political activist, who explains exactly why import tariffs would make the domestic consumer worse of, and would lead to inflation while reducing domestic industrial competitiveness and making it harder to export, let alone the problems that would occur if other countries retaliated with tariffs of your own. Your hero and his friends acknowledge that the anti-protectionist has a good argument, but then point out that the anti-protectionist is an antisemitic neonazi who eats babies and rapes chickens and that he’s controlling the minds of the populace with a magic corkscrew and if something isn’t done to stop him there’ll be human sacrifices to the elder lords being offered up in every village hall within the year, so obviously imposing a 4% tariff on manufactured goods entering the company, phased in over a three-year period, is the only possible way forward.

[Hobb’s thing is environmentalism, and the problems of noxious externalities in a market with insufficient regulation of industry, rather than protectionism, and is expressed in more spiritual and less economic terms, but you get the idea]

Frankly, it feels like she’s taken a sledgehammer to the ribcage of her own series.

But then there’s the other side of the book.

Because, that chapter and some dubious pacing decisions aside, this is actually a really well-written book. It’s a testament to Hobb’s skill as a writer that even when the big picture is at best provocative and at worst ridiculous, there is still plenty of excitement at groun level. The big plot that began in the previous volume and concludes halfway through this one sounded at first like something both straightforward and over-familiar, but things are rarely either with Hobb, and the plot is filled with suspense, mystery, twists, readjustments of emphasis, relationship drama, character development and growth, and glaciers. Even as someone who had read it twice before, I still found it fresh, surprising, moving, and gripping.

And then there’s the second half of the book. Yes, the pacing is questionable, and some of the decisions the author makes are questionable and will be controversial, but as I said above this is still a compelling read. This is a character we’ve lived with for nine volumes showing growth and change, trying to find a reasonably happy ending for himself, and it’s impossible not to empathise with him (let’s face it, if you don’t love Fitz you won’t have made it this far in the first place). Assumptions are questioned, consequences are explored, loose ends are tied up neatly, and a few little threads are left tantalisingly open.

In terms of the writing, and most of the content, this book is just as good as the previous installment, which I said in my review was possibly my favourite novel ever; and in some ways this one is even better, thanks to more stuff actually happening.

So in conclusion, this is a seriously good book let down in just a couple of ways, and that’s not enough to stop it being a wonderful read. It’s a pity that this review focuses so much on the negative, even more so than usual, because I don’t think that really expresses my views: yes, I was intensely frustrated with the book, but in an affectionate, even loving way. Unfortunately, flaws are so much easier to pinpoint than successes, particularly when an author’s been getting the same things right for nine books in a row. You run out of ways to praise the strength of her characterisation, the depth and complexity of the questions her characters force the reader to consider, the extent to which her books can be re-read with fresh eyes and from new angles.

So, despite all the negative things I’ve said here, I can’t wait for next installment.

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Scores:

Adrenaline: 4/5. The exciting bits are exciting, and the non-exciting bits are… still quite exciting. But there’s a lot of the merely ‘quite exciting’ bits, too much to get top marks here.

Emotion: 4/5. Well obviously. You don’t live in someone’s head for this long and not get emotional at the climax of their story!

Thought: 4/5. Considerably more provocative than the usual fantasy novel, both in terms of the big picture and in terms of the personal level. Not to mention a suspenseful plot with plenty of mysteries along the way, and the author also leaves the door open to interpret a lot of character issues in multiple ways.

Beauty: 3/5. As always, Hobb’s prose is solid and effective and occasionally pretty, but isn’t going to win awards for its beauty.

Craft: 3/5. Gets some things very right. Gets other things very wrong. I’d have hoped she’d have been more able to do climaxes and conclusions by now.

Endearingness: 4/5. Mostly loved it, but loses a mark for its missteps, and for some doubts I still have about the ending.

Originality: 4/5. Can’t give it top marks because technically a lot of things here are drawn from mainstays of the genre. But the execution is entirely original, both in its original details and in its character-driven approach.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. It certainly had some flaws, and I don’t think it was as good as the previous volume – maybe better in its heights, but with more problems too. But it’s still a very good book, and a perfectly adequate conclusion to a very good trilogy. If she’d managed to deal with the central conflict more adroitly, and had tightened up the long, lingering anticlimax of an ending (not lost it entirely, but tightened it up, and maybe loosened its end), it might even have been brilliant.

 

 

Eric, by Terry Pratchett

[part of my ongoing complete re-read of Discworld]

(for those who missed the announcement, I’ve skipped Guards! Guards! on the grounds of not being able to find the damn thing, though I’m sure it must be around here somewhere…)

To be honest, there’s not a great deal to say about Eric. At only a few hundred pages, it’s easily the shortest Discworld novel so far, and not much more than half the length of Pyramids. Divide that short length up in a very episodic fashion, and there’s not a lot of substance left. Eric was originally an illustrated novel, but my copy (like almost all the copies you’ll find these days) is minus its illustrations, leaving it just abnormally short (and something of an unwanted sibling in the family, its name often omitted or bracketed in early lists of Discworld novels).

It’s short, and… there’s nothing really essential in it either. It’s the first – and it remains the most in-depth – work dealing with the demons of the Disc, but nobody realy cares about them, so that doesn’t matter too much. It’s the first time we see the Tezumen first-hand, having had at least one teaser before… but it’s also the last time, so nobody cares about them either.

That said, it’s not a bad book. In fact, for a certain purpose, it could be quite a good book. It’s more polished than previous Rincewind novels, and the character has less scope to annoy thanks to the format and extent of the book. There are the normal literary and pop-culture references, but nothing too intellectual really. It’s pretty funny throughout, with a high rate of jocularity per inch, and a fair success rate on the humour too. And it’s short, light, and fits in small spaces. In short, if you’re a Discworld fan who’s going to be stuck in an airport for a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse than this one, which should provide you with an untaxing, enjoyable read that you can get out of the way before your business conference starts (or audience with the queen, dowsing seminar, whatever reason it is you have for travel, really). And since everyone always forgets it exists, you probably won’t remember all the jokes this time.

On the other hand, it’s a book that… well, if it turned out that this book didn’t exist but was just a dream I had, it would change pretty much nothing, even within the limited sub-world of Terry Pratchett fandom. It all has the feel of a throw-away lark; the worldbuilding is disposable, and the humour is adequate but rarely top-drawer, as though Pratchett were saving his best work for some time when it might actually count.

About the only thing that Eric establishes is that Rincewind is a very limited character, or at least a character of very limited utility. Pratchett wouldn’t return to his original protagonist for another eight novels (and four years); four years (and five novels) after that, it would be his (so-far) final starring appearance (although he does crop up as a peripheral character once more, 19 years after Eric). He’s a source of easy jokes, and his natural disengagement does make him a good external observer when Pratchett wants to take us out of ‘mainstream’ Discworld settings – I remember both Interesting Times and The Last Continent being relatively good installments, and I don’t think Pratchett has managed to find a replacement for him in this role (the witches had a go in Witches Abroad, and though I liked it I think those characters would get tiring as tourists even faster than Rincewind, especially because unlike him they can’t stop trying to intefere in things, and their second attempt, Carpe Jugulum, was much less succesful; the long-term replacement I think was meant to be Vimes, but although that worked in The Fifth Elephant it was much less succesful in Monstrous Regiment and Thud). For that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Rincewind again. But the substance of a Rincewind novel has to come from around Rincewind, not from within, and that’s a big handicap for the book – true, there were flashes of real character in both The Colour of Magic and Sourcery, but in the end what makes him a good observer (the fact he’d really rather be somewhere else not doing anything) is also what makes him a poor protagonist. To make him do anything, he has to be railroaded, and that can only work so many times before it becomes annoying. I didn’t find him annoying in Eric, but I did feel I had reached the annoyance threshold. It was time for Pratchett to move on; and, to his credit, he did.

So, scores:

Adrenaline: 2/5. A protagonist who’d rather be at home combined with a highly episodic plot does not make for excitement. Saved from the lowest score since the episodes themselves do work reasonably well.

Emotion: 2/5. Again, hard to really get emotionally involved, although the characters are vivid and… well, not likeable, but sympathetic.

Thought: 2/5. There’s the usual Pratchett wit and erudition, but it’s not firing on… oh I can’t be bothered to finish that cliché, but you know what I mean. The plot isn’t that clever, and there’s nothing really provocative here.

Beauty: 3/5. Pratchett’s prose remains suave and likeable, and there are some good scene descriptions… but nothing extraordinary.

Craft: 4/5. It may read like something he whipped up on a napkin because he was told he had to write a book in five minutes, but it’s really well made. Both the episodes and the book as a whole are neatly plotted, the prose is good, it’s (fairly) funny, and a cast of mostly new characters is introduced and sharply drawn. Even when Pratchett doesn’t write good books, he still writes them well.

Endearingness: 3/5. Fun, entertaining, a pleasant amuse-bouche. Nothing really loveable here, though – it hasn’t stood out strongly in my memory, and I don’t think it will in future, either.

Originality: 3/5. Obviously, many elements owe to many sources, but Pratchett’s adequately inventive in how he pieces things together.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. This is one of the worst Discworld books so far. But a bad Discworld book is still better than a lot of other books you could be reading, and this one at least won’t take very long to read. And even if it’s lightweight and kind of pointless, at least it’s amusing.