Knights of Dark Renown, by David Gemmell

British fantasy author David Gemmell is best known – like a surprising number of authors – for his debut novel, Legend. It’s the first of eleven ‘Drenai’ novels, and though the polish improved over time, there is an inescapable sense of repetition, and of diminishing returns. The characters of The King Beyond the Gate seem mirrored in those of Quest for Lost Heroes, of In the Realm of the Wolf, of Winter Warriors, and probably others I never read too.

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Gemmell’s seventh published novel (apparently there were a couple of other non-fantasy works, either unpublished in his life or published under pseudonyms), Knights of Dark Renown, also feels familiar. But surprisingly, it doesn’t feel too much like The King Beyond the Gate, or like the assassin novels that followed (the Drenai high fantasy Waylander and the post-apocalyptic Western Wolf in Shadow). It does, it’s true, help to contribute to what will become the Archetypical David Gemmell Novel – in it’s band of disparate but iconic heroes, for example – but it also stands apart (for instance, unlike the Archetypal David Gemmell Novel, Knights of Dark Renown is not a quest story). Instead, Gemmell has returned all the way back to Legend itself. But it’s not an imitation; instead, it seems like an intentional self-homage, in which elements recur, but often in twisted form. Where Legend is the story of a heroic defence by a civilised kingdom against the nomadic hordes, for example, Knights of Dark Renown (not unlike The King Beyond the Gate, it must be admitted) is the story of rebellion against a civilised kingdom, and against a king whose greatest sin in his inhumanity toward those descended from ‘Nomads’.

If you’re not sure the homage is intentional? Knights of Dark Renown actually ends with (barring a change of one word from singular to plural) the same last sentence as Legend. He knew what he was doing.

Knights of Dark Renown is not a novel from the end of Gemmell’s career. Indeed, while it was the sixth book published after Legend, in a space of only 5 years, he would go on to publish a further 5 novels in the next 3 years alone, and though he died prematurely, at only 57, he had by then managed to write around two dozen novels after this one. And yet, in a way… it feels retrospective. It feels like a conscious decision to go back, and to make a definitive statement, to put into writing, this is what I was trying to do.

For a popular epic fantasy novel of the 1980s, Knights of Dark Renown is an amazingly ideological, determinedly thematic novel. Gemmell described his novels as “essentially Christian”, and it does feel as though it’s following in the footsteps (albeit with less sure tread) of the great Catholic fantasists – Chesterton, Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Walter M. Miller Jr and so on – and to a lesser extent Protestant and post-Protestant writers like Stephen Donaldson*. The great things about religion, for an author, is that religion is a wonderful incubator for doubt and confusion. Thoroughly non-religious people often fail to understand that – they think religion offers certainty – but in my experience it’s more often the non-religious who display an unthinking assuredness, because faith is a powerful weapon to challenge preconceptions – to set, as it were, one preconception against another. The religious live in a world of inherent contradictions, in which modern society and their faith often seem to offer incommensurable frameworks for understanding the world – and those who realise this, yet attempt to embrace both worlds, are forced to try to explore ways to reconcile the unreconcilable. They are also taught, of course, to believe that the impossible is possible, which is an excellent foundation for a career in fantasy…

*Donalson, iirc, considers himself non-religious. However, his background – raised by Christian fundamentalists on an evangelical mission to India – clearly pervades his writing, as he acknowledges himself.

In the case of Gemmell, the conflict that drives much of his work, and that seems particularly in evidence here, is between a religion that demands peace and forgiveness, and his own unpleasant, violent childhood in London. Son of an unmarried mother (or “whore”, as he describes hearing her described from his earliest childhood), bullied and beaten up by children and adults, he later described being rescued by his stepfather, a man of such a fearsome reputation that nobody else in the estate dared pick on him again, and who forced him to take up boxing, so that he would never have to run or hide from a fight again. The rough edge he picked up seems not to have been without some cost – expelled from school (for running a gambling syndicate), repeatedly arrested, diagnosed as a psychopath. He became a big fan of Westerns. You can see all of this in his fiction: his adulation of big, violent brutes, his machismo, his obsession with never backing down from a conflict, his confidence that might can, at least in the short term, make right, his faith in the power of violent men to protect the innocent from other violent men. In a way, it gave him the perfect mentality for a fantasy writer, at least of the faux-mediaeval sort that dominated fantasy in the 1980s (and largely still does) – it’s the mentality of the middle-ages, after all. But, like a mediaeval knight, Gemmell had to try to find a way to balance that ideology of violence with a religion of peace and love – a religion of turning the other cheek and of loving one’s enemy, and of deep suspicion regarding the long-term usefulness of violence. It’s incoherent; and it’s powerful, and fascinating. It’s an incommensurable conflict of values that Gemmell continually attempts to reconcile throughout Knights of Dark Renown, with a surprising degree of success.

It’s this conflict that led Gemmell, I think, to explore areas that would later be associated with the ‘grimdark’ movement, and that distinguishes his work tonally from those later writers. Gemmell writes deeply flawed, even evil, protagonists, not merely for some salacious, edgy fun, but as a matter of ideological conviction. Gemmell wants to know what makes somebody a hero – not what makes them virtuous or noble, but what makes someone stand against a tide of enemies in order to defend someone who cannot defend themselves. That, Gemmell believes, requires immense strength – of mind, of spirit, and of body. It takes the willingness to die, and both the willingness and the ability to kill, and these, he thinks, are not traits found in innocent and peaceful men. His heroes must therefore be bloody men (or, theoretically, women, although there’s no denying that Gemmell is a writer of old-fashioned boy’s stories about what makes a boy into a man – in which women, while not unwelcome, are not really his target audience, and not just because some of his protagonists will as happily rape a woman as look at her). Why, then, do these bloody men, men of power, choose to make sacrifices to fight on the right side?

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To answer this, Gemmell assembles perhaps his most morally questionable cast, without the slightest pretence at nobility. Serial rapist? Potential hero. Murderer? Potential hero. Guy who shoots slaves in the back? Potential hero. Guy who has men flayed alive and women burned to death? Clearly he’s on the right side! At the same time, in order to present a clear and meaningful moral choice, Gemmell’s bad guys have to be really, really bad – we’re into full-on mediaeval Holocaust territory here (though, as his motivations are ideological rather than salacious, there is little in the way of gratuitous details). Yet even so, great emphasis is laid on how close these villains are to our heroes – how small the margins can be.

Perhaps we might compare Gemmell to an author like George RR Martin, who also deals in fairly blood-soaked protagonists at times. The difference is, Martin is interested in how people can tell right from wrong, in complicated and conflicting moral situations in which one virtue wars against another. Gemmell doesn’t ignore this question, but his focus is instead on what a person can do with their knowledge of right and wrong – when they’ve seen what is right and what is wrong, what makes them decide to do what is right, when they know it will be at great risk to themselves?

[We might say Gemmell is naive – after all, most of our decisions are not so clear-cut in their morality. But we might also say that Martin is naive, in giving us such a benefit of the doubt in thinking our sins the result of well-meaning attempts to do the best thing in difficult circumstances. If Martin wrote about the Holocaust, it would be a story of noble Wehrmacht officers torn between their duty as human beings and the conflicting impulses of professional and national duty, the desire to protect their loved ones from retribution and so forth. If Gemmell wrote about the Holocaust, it would be a story of drug dealers and Stalinists and rapist footsoldiers who are cornered into situations where they cannot resist acting heroically. (Wait, that exists, doesn’t it? Gemmell would write something like Schindler’s List, only not about rich people…)]

Gemmell never really gives an answer here – indeed, my impression is that he doesn’t think there is an answer, as such. Heroism isn’t a state of mind – it’s a result, and a result that can spring from many different causes. Some men act heroically because they are noble and generous; others, from pride, or guilt, or bloody-mindedness, or vainglory, or greed, or despair. Decisions are made in quiet moments in the heart, and nobody can ever really know their reasons – if anyone ever does, that knowledge is soon lost as history becomes legend. As a result, his characters don’t really turn from evil men to good men; they don’t even necessarily reveal their hearts of gold. Rather, Gemmell is interested in showing the broken places in men of all kinds, that can snap some spine of common sense and self-preservation and lead them to do dangerous, stupid, heroic things. And he’s interested in showing how those heroic deeds can make the world a better place – no matter how vile the hero truly was as a person.

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It must be said, unfortunately, that Gemmell’s writing ability, though somewhat more advanced here than at the time of Legend, is not the match of his philosophical ambition. Though he can write strong, clear characters, moving scenes, and even some good lines, there’s something cartoonish about it all – bold, larger-than-life, lacking in wrinkles, unfashionably earnest – and his prose is the solid, weighty, slightly weird prose of old-school fantasy. It’s less than a page before we encounter the first “slavering jaws of the beast”, for example.

More problematic than the prose, however, is the sheer implausibility of the novel’s length. Different editions have it in the range of 300-400 pages, and that’s… ridiculous. Modern fantasy authors would tell this story in the form of a trilogy, with each volume as long or longer than this whole novel. A writer like Martin could happily take this plot, add in some details and distractions, and spin five or eight long novels out of the material. Gemmell burns through it in one short volume. That doesn’t preclude a certain plodding quality in a little of the early going – no matter your wordcount aims, setting up plot and character and worldbuilding takes time and is hard to make fun in itself – but it does undermine the power of the novel, particularly in emotional terms. We simply don’t get enough time with these characters, enough insight into their thinking, enough understanding of the world they inhabit, for their key character moments to either be fully understandable (they are not out of the blue, but they are more sketched-in-outline than actually painted for us) or to be as emotionally resonant as they might otherwise be.

The flipside of that is that there’s a period in the novel that, by modern standards, is just ludicrously intense. It feels as though each chapter, for a while, has some big beat that would be the climax of many other novels, and that intensity has a certain irreproducible impact.

In the end, Gemmell doesn’t quite succeed in pulling it all off. Perhaps he could have done it in this wordcount, with far greater abilities as a writer; or perhaps he could have done it with the skills he had, and a considerably longer narrative in which his characters had room to breathe (seriously, at times it feels like some characters bounce from one big moment to the next without a single moment to rest). But with limited talent and even more limited wordcount, he is only ever able to deliver, as it were, the boldy-sketched idea for a novel, rather than the novel itself. Perhaps that’s why many of his books work better in the memory than on the page – the memory is able to fill in the gaps he leaves.

And yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t hold the man to unreasonable standards of excellence. There is nothing shameful in being a teller of exciting, interesting, moving yarns. And if such a yarnweaver tries to take on a bigger philosophical programme than he can really do justice to through the medium of a bestselling genre novel, that might be frustrating, but it shouldn’t be considered a demerit. Knights of Dark Renown may be pulp, and not even the best pulp, but it’s every bit as good a piece of pulp as most genre authors will ever write – and it’s far more thought-provoking to boot. It may well be Gemmell’s best novel, at least of those that I’ve read, and given its combination of readability and thematic interest, it could legitimately be considered a classic (in the true, historical sense) of the genre canon.

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Adrenaline: 4/5. It never quite becomes a true thriller, probably because it’s too rushed and shallow to earn full engagement, and because it eschews things like ‘buildup’ – and because there’s an undeniable flatness to the writing that gradually becomes frustrating. But the action, once things get going, comes thick and fast, and I found myself turning the pages with impressive eagerness (particularly given that I already knew how it ended).

Emotion: 4/5. OK, feels a bit weird to say that, because this is exactly the sort of book – weak on characterisation, and trying to rush through to the good bits – that normally loses points for its emotional engagement. But I must admit, its playing-to-its-strengths, back-to-basics parade of Manly Heroic-Tragic Manly Moments did get me moist-eyed at points – it’s a great example of how sometimes the characters and the setting can exist to give an excuse to tell the old, powerful stories.

Thought: 4/5. This isn’t a deep, philosophical treatise; and it’s a book that invites thinking rather than demanding it. But is it, as it were, above par? Yes. It may not prosecute its discussions with as much rigour and detail as we might hope – a longer book, in particular, might have had room to explore consequences in greater depth – but I find its complex discussion of competing values and virtues, including its willingness to challenge conventional morality to a surprising degree, to be fascinating.

Beauty: 3/5. It’s not an elegantly-written novel, and a lot of ugly things happen. But Gemmell does construct a series of iconic scenes that have their own beauty.

Craft: 3/5. I suppose the writing is… acceptible. The “worst” moments, odd ways of speaking and clunky, strange expressions, are less a problem with the author’s prose and more a fashion statement for a certain flavour of old-school, archaicism-scented fantasy. The construction, and intense distillation, of its plot is actually very professionally done – it seems natural, but in hindsight packing so much content in with so little ‘spare’ wordcount takes some considerable craft in planning. Wringing so much impact out of what is on paper fairly paper-thin charactisation and worldbuilding is actually pretty impressive. Speaking of which, however: even a few more sentences could have fleshed out the setting considerably, and in particular I wish I had a better grasp of distances…

Endearingness: 3/5. I kind of liked it. I’m certainly left with a more favourable impression than with Legend. I found it a generally enjoyable read, and not just out of nostalgia. At the same time, I can’t deny that there’s a… rasping quality. It’s like listening to some super-high-energy music, some aggressive punk or death metal or whatever… part of you is impressed and energised, but as time goes on another part of you just gets worn out, and bored, and wishing for something with a little more nuance and variety. Put it this way: I enjoyed reading this book, and will re-read more Gemmells in the future. But would I want to read five Gemmells in a row these days? Good gods, no. Partly that’s the intensity (and cliché nature) of the content; partly it’s that the writing can’t by itself generate the continual interest and novelty that makes the really loveable books so enjoyable, on all levels, to read and re-read.

Originality: 2/5. Gemmell is spinning an interesting story, but it’s one made, very clearly, from the rendered and processed corpses of other stories (indeed, this is lampshaded by the fact that many characters have names from Irish (and in one case Welsh) mythology, for no apparent reason). The types of characters, the types of situations, the types of choices… everything is extremely familiar, albeit delivered in a distinctive Gemmellian fashion. That makes it a good book for genre fans who want a new angle on their genre, but not a great book for those who are looking for something genuinely new.

 

OVERALL: 5/8. GOOD. OK, I feel a little sheepish about that. Maybe a more dispassionate observer would give it merely a ‘Not Bad’, as I gave to Legend. But Knights of Dark Renown is a better book than Legend; it is, in its own way, a better book than a lot of fantasy. It is, as it were, better at what it is. I’ve rated it better, for example, than A Game of Thrones, which some may consider heresy; but I think it’s merited. George RR Martin is a considerably better author than David Gemmell (though it doesn’t always seem like that in A Game of Thrones); he can master a much more varied and interesting, and ultimately powerful story than Gemmell can, as Martin went on to show in later books. But his first attempt at epic fantasy was undeniably a little ropey, not to mention limited by its placement in its own wider story (as an opening novel of a long-running series, there are things it just isn’t interested in doing). Whereas Gemmell goes all-out with Knights of Dark Renown, and though its limitations are too great to let it reach the genuine, genre-transcendant classics of ‘Very Good’ status, I’m happy with putting it in the tier of ‘Good’. What it does, it does well.

So maybe more people should remember it.

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The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

Yay! Not only have I finished reading this behemoth, which took me forever (not entirely the fault of the book, I should make clear), but I’ve even, finally, finished writing a review of it!

But, first, a WARNING! – I always try to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but I found that really hard this time. I have still refrained from any detailed or specific spoilers about the plot, particularly its conclusion. However, I have assumed that after 173 years of high publicity, literally hundreds of stage, film, TV, graphic novel and musical adaptations (IMDB lists 200 screen works with “Monte Cristo” in the name; some are allusions or individual episodes or coincidence, but then there’ll be a bunch of other adaptations without that specific name in the title (Japanese versions ususally call it something else, for instance); even Wikipedia lists nearly 40 notable ones), not to mention sequels, prequels, and reimaginings, in dozens of languages (there have been 116 years of Japanese adaptations alone!)… well, I’m hoping that the broad, general, no-names-mentioned outline of what the novel is about will not be a spoiler for most of you. That said, if you want to remain completely, utterly, unimpeachably unspoiled and an entirely blank slate for your first reading of the book, read no further! And, I’d suggest, go and live in a cave somewhere until you get around to reading it, because otherwise I don’t know how you’re going to avoid these spoilers…

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Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

Having left it far too long from my initial reading, I didn’t feel I could write a proper review of this. However, for the sake of completeness I have jotted down a few sparse remarks on Goodreads, so, for the first time ever, I’ll copy my review from GR to here rather than vice versa… again, sorry if this isn’t the fully-fleshed out review some might be expecting of me. Perhaps I’ll be able to do that at some point in the future, after a re-read; for now, you’ll have to make do with the bare-bones outline of my thoughts…

 


 

A lot of people don’t like Assassin’s Fate. A lot of people hate it. A lot of people say they’ll never read another Robin Hobb novel ever again.

I sympathise. I felt exactly the same thing… way back when I read Fool’s Fate for the first time. Quite a few people think the same when they read Assassin’s Quest, for that matter. This is all not just a coincidence. Hobb’s trilogies don’t end where the conventions of the genre tell us they should end. They turn into different stories, ones that we don’t want to hear.

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Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances; by James Branch Cabell

No soul may travel upon a bridge of words

 

In 1919, the year of the publication of Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, few people knew who James Branch Cabell was. He had, for some time, been quietly accruing a small but passionate brigade of die-hard fans – people like Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and Scott F. and Zelda Fitzgerald – but his work had not yet broken through even into the general awareness of the U.S. literati, let alone onto the bestseller lists.

In 1921, the year of the publication of Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances, quite a lot of people knew who James Branch Cabell was. The two-year prohibition of Jurgen at the behest of the Society for the Prevention of Vice, the associated highly-publicised trials, the subversive allure of the samizdat copies of the book that had been circulating at sky-high prices in the interim, the chorus of intellectual voices in his support and the thundering denunciations of the popular press all ensured that Cabell was – if still not exactly widely-read – at least widely known about. An audience, ready-made by the misfiring PR campaigns of his enemies, waited with bated breath for his next opus, begging to be seduced…

…and that’s probably where things began to go wrong.

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Or, Why My Reviews Are An Alternative Truth.

 

I don’t really obsess over my blog stats that much – after all, I don’t have enough visitors to sustain statistical interest. But I do pop in now and then to see what’s been going on, and to pick up now and then perhaps an interesting site that might have linked to me. One passing link in an io9 article two years ago continues to drive hits; in recent weeks it seems I’ve become a case study of some kind, as some small school somewhere seems to be directing students to my blog, although sadly I can’t see which review in particular they might be reading. And now a university, too! And in the last recently, someone’s been going through a couple of posts I made about Nietzsche a few years ago – which perhaps explains, if it does not excuse, the whimsically Nietzscheesque style of the title of this post… [some expressions just beg for a Nietzsche Chapter Title]

But I also happened to spot a more interesting source of visitors: from a Terry Pratchett fanzine. I’m flattered, it goes without saying, that anybody would link to my reviews, particularly fellow Pratchett fans!

Yet the tone of their remarks was not, shall we say, entirely crafted so as to flatter. I’m used to that –I’m an inherently annoying person, I’m aware. On this occasion, however, what struck me was not so much their disdain as their apparent confusion….

…whereas the almost always irritating blogger Vacuous Wastrel first wibbles on for some 2,000 words(!) in pursuit of overly faux-intellectual overthinking, before finally getting to the meat of “hang on, this book rocks!”…

and:

Vacuous Wastrel is back with a review of Wintersmith that’s so at war with itself that it might just be Alternative Truth.

Now first things first: I’ve alway seen my writing style as more dominated by drivelling, and occasional wittering, than by wibbling. And I’m not entire sure why the thought of someone writing 2,000 words about something they’re really interested in deserves an exclamation mark, nor how anyone could look at my middlebrow, clumsy value judgements and consider them “faux-intellectual” or “overthinking”. I’d love to overthink a thing, but so far I think I’ve struggled to even reach the standard of plain “thinking”.

But there is a substantial point there. Why are my reviews Alternative Truth? Why, that is, are they “at war with themselves”? Why do they wibble around being critical about things, and why don’t they just get right down to the real meat of “this book rocks!”?

Because that is a fair criticism. Many of my reviews do list a great many flaws in the books I read – even in books that I love. And I do love Terry Pratchett’s books. He’s probably my favourite author. That’s why I’ve reviewed 41 of his novels so far (and yes, the cumulative word count of the reviews is now longer than several of those novels). It’s why I’ve spent hours encouraging people, online and offline, to read Pratchett, and laying out the pros and cons of different starting points and different routes through the Discworld cycle. It’s why I wrote a 10,000-odd word eulogy trying to explain some of the reasons I, and others, were so upset by his passing. And yet I can’t deny the charges: I have criticised several of his (later, in particular) books for a lack of novelty, for superficiality, for an indulgent flabbiness (seriously people, Unseen Academicals was around 30% longer than novels like Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, Pyramids, or Feet of Clay. Did anybody actually feel it had 30% more goodness in it?). I’ve discussed times when I found Pratchett’s politics irritating (as well as times when I found it encouraging). I’ve noted sadly times when I felt he wasn’t pushing his world and his characters forward enough, and times when he relied too much on parody and on lazy jokes.

So why have I said these things, and allowed my reviews to become “at war with themselves”, rather than delivering only the “meat” of “this book rocks”?

I thought I’d offer a gaggle of wibbling excuses for this Alternative Truth (which perhaps may also explain some of the Alternative Truth in my non-Pratchett reviews at the same time)…

 

  1. Happy families are all alike.

Tolstoy’s proverb is, of course, not true in the slightest, when it comes to people. But when it comes to reviewing, it can be a real problem. It’s hard to say what’s good about a book, particularly if you don’t want to get into spoilers, which I try to avoid. Book after book, Pterry succesfully put words in an order than was grammatically uncontroversial. He told us stories, with characters, and plots that mostly worked, and he was able to conjure up some great turns of phrase. But without giving detailed examples, it’s hard to really write a review about that, or to explain how specifically Pratchett’s good writing differs from the good writing of any other author. In particular, by the time of the specific reviews in question, I had already reviewed some three dozen or more novels by the same author, in the same setting, often with the same characters. What more is there left for me to say, without getting into fullblown spoilerific critique or literary analysis? If you’re not sure why I like Pratchett after nearly four dozen reviews of his novels, I suspect I’m not going to hit on one miraculous expression that will make it all clear in the nearly-four-dozen-and-one-th.

Flaws, on the other hand, can be very specific. If I feel that a particular book doesn’t quite get the pacing right, or ends on a bit of an anticlimax, or doesn’t serve a character well, or bats below the author’s average ratio of dud to brilliant jokes, that’s something I can say quite easily and specifically. Even if I only say that I think he’s written better books than this – well, that’s something I can say without much difficulty.

If it’s hard to say specific, detailed, non-repetitive good things about a book, but relatively easy to outline a catalogue of errors, there will be an inevitable tendency in an impartial review to devote more word count to the enumarable faults than to the ineffable virtues of a work, particularly in reviewing so many works by the same author.

And yet, I acknowledge, I have at time gone further than this, because…

 

  1. We scratch where it itches

Books make us feel things. About the world; about the book. Some of those feelings are good feelings. Some of them are bad. And, often, some of them are just plain… niggling.

My reviews may give the impression that I’m a critical, analytical reader. I’m really not. I try to make a point of not thinking analytically about books while I’m reading them, so as not to break the spell. I try to take novels as they come, and enjoy them for what they are in the moment.

So why do I write reviews? It’s not because – in most cases – I’m thinking these thoughts as I’m reading into the night. Quite the opposite. I review to stretch out the muscles that ache when I wake up the next morning. I review to calm the sensation of mental indigestion. I write these wibbly-whiffly things not in response to what I feel when I’m reading, or not directly – but rather, in response to the lingering feelings that remain within me in the hours, days, or sometimes weeks after I’ve put the book down for the last time. First we read; then we digest.

And if there’s one thing that’s hard to fully dissolve, to fully absorb through our mental stomach lining, it’s the fluttery disquiet of not being quite as happy with a book as you thought that you might have been. Something’s not quite right here, you think. Why don’t I love this?

Sometimes the answer is really obvious, and then it’s quick to state; and, once stated, we can move on. I don’t love this because although it was well told, I hated all the characters. I don’t love that because, as much as I liked spending time with the protagonist, the continual irritation of clunkingly bad dialogue left me too distracted to enjoy the experience fully. But sometimes, it’s not so simple. Sometimes… it’s just not quite right. So we think about why that might be. We think about what we enjoyed, what we enjoyed less, what we felt and how we felt it, why we might have felt it…

…a book that’s not quite right is like an itch, or like indigestion. It often is a small itch, not something that overwhelms the enjoyment of what’s right about it – just as a spot of mild indigestion doesn’t have to ruin a meal. But when you’re up late after a meal, you think more about the indigestion than about the savour of the meal. You want to put an end to the indigestion, so that you can remember the meal more fondly. When you have an itch, you want to scratch it; you want to scratch just the right spot. With a physical itch, of course, scratching rarely helps; but with itches of the mind, scratching can dissolve the distraction. And so I scratch – but sometimes it can take me a while to try to put my finger on exactly where the itch is.

A lot of people say “there was something I didn’t quite love, but I just can’t put my finger on it…”. It’s much rarer for people to say “I really loved it, but I just can’t put my finger on why!”. We don’t have that craving to put our finger on the why of it, when there is no irritation. When everything’s lovely, we say what we can say and we move on. But when there’s something bothering us, we try to express ourselves, and we’ll fight to get the right words out if it’s not easy.

To be sure, sometimes the opposite does happen. There have been a few books where I’ve been in some respect so baffled by not hating something that seems to deserve it – or where I know that anyone reading a shorter review would be baffled by my non-hatred – and I’ve felt the need to try to express exactly why I found myself enjoying it. [my most recent review, of much-maligned seminal space opera The Skylark of Space, spends more time trying to explain the good than the (quite obvious and easily expressed) bad.]

But it’s far more common for me to, as it were, assume that a book will be good, and try to scratch the itch of expressing why exactly I don’t think it’s perfect.

Yet I also have a more specific reason for examining these things in detail…

  1. I want to know how to write.

I’m not a writer, although I sometimes write. I may never actually be a writer – in the sense of actually finishing things, let alone in the sense of actually publishing things. I’ve no great illusions in that regard. But nonetheless, I do like writing, I do want to write better, and I approach books from that perspective, with the hope of learning something, of improving myself somehow.

Unfortunately, the positive side of things – advice like “be a genius” – is pretty hard to get a good, specific grip on, partly for reasons I’ve mentioned above. In any case, if I were to be a writer, I wouldn’t be any other writer. In this hypothetical scenario, we would have to assume I had something of my own to say, and some sort of a style (or styles) of my own in which to say it. That, we must hypothesise, must already have been taken care of somehow – and if it isn’t, I don’t see any way to take care of it by reading other people’s books (beyond perhaps very vague inspirations).

Instead, what I’m interested in more, from this point of view, is how not to write badly. If a book isn’t a complete success… why not? What did the author do wrong? What should I try to avoid if I ever write a book? Of course, these failures are most instructive against a background of success – if a book gets 9 tenths of everything wrong, it’s hard to pin down which of its flaws are serious. But if a book gets 9 tenths of everything right, that puts the 1 tenth it got wrong under the spotlight. So, particularly when I’m reviewing a good book, part of my mind is always thinking: “but what could it have done better?”

How could this book be better? To me, that’s a much more interesting question than just “does this book rock?”

Yet even if it weren’t for that, I think there are still reasons to think about the negative alongside the positive, because…

 

  1. It isn’t wrong to see both sides

A lot of things in the world are great. A lot of things in the world are awful. Quite a few things are both. Many, many things are good. Many, many things are bad. Lots and lots of things are both.

It feels as though we live in a world of increasing polarisation, on almost every issue. You’re with us or against us. You love it or you hate it. Make up your mind; pick a side; know who you are; chose your identity; don’t turn on your own kind. Stay in your lane. It feels as though it’s true at every level, from high politics all the way down to favourite crisp flavours. Suggest that you’re unsure, that you’re divided, even that you respect dissent, and people look at you funny. Pick a side. Don’t be at war against yourself. What is this, Alternative Truth?

But I think it’s important, now more than ever, to try to understand other people. From understanding comes respect. From understanding comes the freedom to choose – the freedom, as it were, to mix and match. From understanding comes independence of thought, the ability to assess a thing on its own merits, by your own lights, rather than accepting your assigned opinions. And when the chips are really down… from understanding comes strategic advantage.

Book reviews may not be important, in the larger scheme of things, but I think that if you want to try to live a certain way – to think a certain way – you have to live, to think, that way even in the unimportant things. That’s why almost all my reviews attempt to see both sides of the matter. Why might people like this book? Why might people not like this book?

Sometimes, of course, the weight of reality presses heavier on one side than another. Sometimes I’m struggling to find excuses for a book; more often, I’m struggling to find flaws. But other people aren’t insane, most of the time. If they don’t like a book, it’s not because they’re mad, usually. So if you want to understand people, here’s a tiny little starting place: why don’t they like the things you like? Why do they like things that you can’t stand?

In the particular case of Pratchett, it’s clear which side of the debate I’m on. I love Pratchett; I’ve said repeatedly that I think he may well prove to be, in the judgement of history, the Dickens of our age.

But plenty of people don’t like Pratchett’s books, and plenty more say they like them well enough, they’re funny they suppose, but nothing all that exciting, nothing to write home about. How can they think like that? It’s not because they’re mad, or stupid. Sometimes it’s big coarse-grained things like “I can’t stand anything with trolls in” or “I hate comedy”. Those sort of go without saying. But sometimes it’s smaller stuff, often stuff that they themselves may not have consciously expressed. But there are still reasons.

So even if I loved every Pratchett novel equally – and I don’t – I would still try to puzzle out the curious question of why some people weren’t enthralled by him. And things like “this bit feels drawn out too far”, “that bit feels like a lazy joke”, “so-and-so isn’t a very well-developed character”, “there isn’t enough feeling of threat”, and so on, are all potential reasons that can go together to explain why many people don’t quite love these books.

And that’s also good to keep in mind for more than purely philosophical reasons, because…

  1. If you want to help people, you need to know what they want

I review mostly for personal reasons. Partly it’s a way of working out for myself what I liked and didn’t like about a book; partly it’s to work out what might or might not work as a writer. A lot of it is just that it seems like a good, disciplined sort of a habit to get into, for somebody as prone to procrastination, and as easily distracted, as myself.

But a review is an inherently interpersonal thing. Even if the audience never actually shows up, is never even hoped for, its possibility is embedded within the format. I am explaining what I think about a book: so who am I explaining to?

Well, nobody really, but also everybody. And just in case anybody happens to drop by, I try to respect that audience, and include them in my thinking. I’m not just saying what I thought about the book: I’m trying to give a sense of what I think that you might think about the book. Whoever you are. I hope, in other words, that some of my reviews might occasionally help out somebody who is debating whether or not to read a book (as well as to help clarify the thoughts of some who already have).

But because I don’t know who you are – because you’re everybody – I can’t really cater to your own personal tastes; and it would hardly make sense to assume that your own tastes were identical to my own. So again, I try to see both sides of the question, so that my review might be relevent to you whichever side you come from. If I think a book is great because of its characters despite the fact that it is very slow-paced, it’s only fair that I mention that I think it’s very slow-paced, because to you that might be more important than the characters. If all I say is “this book rocks!”, that doesn’t tell anybody whether or not they should read it, unless they already know in advance that their own views match mine perfectly. So instead I try to say why the book rocks… and part of that inevitably is giving some examples of the ways in which it does not rock.

Yet even if I thought that shouting “this book rocks!” a lot to everybody would make everybody read it, and even if I didn’t care that they may not enjoy it, I still wouldn’t do so. Because, strategically…

 

  1. Don’t cry ‘bonanza!’ until you’ve actually hit gold.

If I tell you that this is the best book ever, you might rush out and read it. And if you hate it, or if you’re just not utterly impressed… then you may not pay attention next time I want to recommend you something.

So if I tell everybody that, say, The Last Continent just rocks, it’s so hilarious, seriously guys you should all go out and buy it… well maybe somebody will. But if they’re not all that impressed by it, then how do I next week persuade them to go read Small Gods, or Night Watch? When I tell them that the book just rocks, they’ll just reply that, hey, you said that last time, and the whole Rincewind plot was a waste of space, so why should I listen to you now?

A lot of people aren’t going to like everything I like, and as a result they’re going to approach my reviews with some wariness. Fair enough. But I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to put one over on them; I don’t want them to feel like I’m shilling, or like I’m preaching to the choir. I hope that if somebody reads a book I liked and doesn’t like it, they can still say “OK, he did kind of warn me that might happen”. And then they can, as it were, calibrate their priorities and mine, and carry on reading my reviews, even if they weight it a little bit one way or the other when they’re considering their purchases.

I’ve read a lot of books that I’ve liked. In fact, I’ve read hardly any that I haven’t liked. When I give a book 2 out of 7… well, it’s a bad book in my opinion, but it wasn’t awful. Some people might like it. I may even have enjoyed it myself, in some respects. 3 out of 7? Bad but with redeeming features – when those features align with my interests, a book like that might even be a guilty favourite. 4 out of 7… ‘not bad’. A book that’s not bad is an impressive thing in its own right. It might not be for everybody, but for those its suits it can be a really enjoyable experience. 5 out of 7 I call ‘good’, and at that point I’m starting to go out and tell people they should read it, because it’s really worth it. And 6 out of 7? Everyone should look into it! And then there’s the really brilliant books, the 7 out of 7s, that are practically required reading, in my opinion.

A lot of people want this to just be a 2-tier system: is it bad, or is it good?

But if I tell people that a book like Sourcery, or Daughter of the Empire, or Blue Moon Rising (all books that I enjoyed reading, will probably read again, and would recommend to at least some readers) are unambiguously good books, that they just “rock”, and that everyone should read them… well, a lot of people who take me up on those recommendations are going to be disappointed, because those are all books that have a lot of faults, and that are only going to please you if you’re predisposed to like that sort of thing.

And then, when people have been disappointed by my recommendations, and then how do I try to persuade them to read a novel like Jurgen, or like The Rider, novels that I think are genuine masterpieces that desparately deserve more readers?

Nor is it just numbers. At the moment, of all the books I’ve reviewed on this blog, my #3 highest-rated novel is Fool’s Quest. I’m not ashamed of that: it’s a fantastic book with a great many virtues. It’s possibly the most emotionally engaging novel I’ve ever read, for one thing (for those of us who have followed the protagonist through the 7 previous novels, at least). And yet I’m quite aware that many, many readers will not take to it. Not everybody wants a low-key, glacial doorstopper of an epic fantasy novel. A lot of people who really like The Rider – a terse, tense, semi-autobiographical novella about bicycle racing – are not going to like Fool’s Quest. [although there’s probably more overlap than you might think. Both are intensely psychological stories, for a start.] So if I want people who don’t like the idea of Fool’s Quest to take my recommendation of The Rider seriously (and vice versa!), I think I have to try to make clear not just that both books do indeed “rock”, but how it is that they rock in very different ways – which means exploring not just what they do well but also, at least to some extent, hinting at what they may also do badly. Or, at least, not quite as brilliantly (since actually I don’t think either novel has any outright flaws, except in a comparative and relative sense).

And that means that to some degree my reviews will be at war with themselves.

 

 

 

For all these reasons and for more, I think I’m stuck writing conflicted reviews, in which both good and bad are discussed freely. For these reasons and more, my reviews are stuck being, to use the good critic’s phrase, Alternative Truth.

Now, what you do about that is up to you. If you’re exasperated because I don’t just remind you much your favourite book rocks, that’s quite understandable, I’m sure. Fortunately, fans of writers like Pratchett have a limitless supply of flattering reviews to enjoy.

But I hope that out there somewhere are people who want something a little different from that – something that involves consideration of both pros and cons, and how they might relate to one another, and how books might stand in respect of one another with a little more nuance than just “this rocks” and “that sucks”. If there are such people, I can only hope that they continue to enjoy the fact that my reviews may at times constitute an Alternative Truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

*sighs sadly*

Nope.

Oh, it’s not rubbish. But it feels as though another little barrier has just come down between me and so, so many other people.

I didn’t adore it.

I can sort of see why some people might. There are virtues here. Goldman has a great line every now and then, and of course the narrative is geared around Being Awesome, so there’s that. And yet…

Well, let’s backtrack.

Continue reading

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett

One part in my ongoing (and going on, and on, and on…) Complete Discworld Reread project

Let’s try to list all the things I didn’t like about this book.

It still has too many Feegles in it. They’re amusing in very small doses, but the jokes quickly wear thin – and, more importantly, their presence and behaviour constantly undercut the tone of the book. The Tiffany books have grown more adult and serious with each installment, but the Feegles remain back where they started, so that they feel like heavy-handed comic relief when I want to be getting on with the main story.

Because Tiffany is still young and inexperienced, a lot of things have to be explained to her. A lot. Pratchett is pretty fond of Explaining Stuff at the best of times, but here it feels at times like she’s just wandering from one font of explanation to another.

Not unrelatedly, there are a few points where I felt it tipped over into lecturing the reader.

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And on that note, there’s the gender politics. Which actually manages to irritate me from both directions. On the one hand, the latent feminism of all his Lancre books boils over here to the point of pretty much declaring that all males are useless and inferior and need to be controlled by women for their own good – and while of course that’s a conclusion it’s been not unfair to draw from the books since at least Witches Abroad, I’d really prefer that sort of thing to be left in the background, rather than stated outright by the author. As a male, it’s a little patronising, frankly. And yet at the same time, the way Pratchett pitches his female dominance is frankly reactionary, reinforcing the tired cliché that women should try to manipulate men through combinations of fear, attractiveness, passive-aggression, and large helpings of shaming, and that if a man doesn’t do exactly what a woman wants she just wasn’t devious enough about not telling him outright what she wanted. I don’t think this helps anybody.

Of course, Pratchett’s witches have always been a portrait of one particular kind (or a certain set of kinds) of woman, and as demonstrations of how women can have power and agency even in a society that on the surface seems entirely patriarchal this is not a bad thing. But here he seems to go over the line into presenting this as the only way for women to be, having an authoritative female character opine, without contradiction, that this is all automatically “written in [all women] somewhere”, and if they don’t know that then they just “haven’t read [that page of themselves] yet”. And I’m just not sure that that’s the best message to be aiming at the book’s intended young female readers. [It’s also notable that at this stage we are no longer using tropes about a certain sort of traditional female authority figure as background for the characterisation of the witches: we are now almost explicitly using the witches as symbols for that sort of female power].

And perhaps that wouldn’t aggrevate me as much if it weren’t alongside Tiffany’s otherwise inexplicable breakdown into Cliche Teenage Girl syndrome. Most of the time she’s a hardened woman of the world – she’s stayed up all night watching over corpses, she’s put her hand in a sheep to turn around a breach-birth, she’s a no-nonsense, sensible woman. Except that suddenly, for no apparent reason, the merest thought of her not-a-boyfriend-honestly even talking to another woman fills her with a jealous, giddy-headed, insecure rage. Instantly. Giddy. Now, I get that people can be irrational about loved ones, even sometimes when they don’t yet know they’re in love. Frightened, certainly. Jealous. Unhappy. And yes, sometimes even angry. But Tiffany, of all people, and with no build-up to it whatsoever? The implication very much seems to be that “losing all rational sense of perspective while becoming furiously, using-multiple-exclamation-marks-per-sentence angry whenever you read in a letter that a boy you like spent a few minutes talking to a girl about something innocuous” is just another part of what we’re expected to accept is just “written in” to the nature of women. And we’re not even talking coherently angry – not even “he knows I wouldn’t like that” or “she knows he’s mine” or even “what if he likes her more than me?”, just aimless!? hysteria!!! talking!! how could he?!. Politics aside, it feels like a betrayal of the character as written everywhere else – since, while I can imagine Tiffany being possessive, sometimes even irrational, one thing she never is is hysterical.

Also, it feels as though Pratchett is laughing at her, and at other women through her, and it isn’t pleasant. It’s not genuine character development, it’s an allegedly amusing “and women are like this!” routine stuck superfluously onto the side of the story (and basically never mentioned again).

Oh, and of course there needs to be a Hero. Even if he’s only there for show because women do everything important, every still needs a Hero to look like they’re doing the rescuing. Apparently.

Similar issues arise with the class politics, where again Pratchett turns support into what looks suspiciously like antediluvian thinking. As always, Pratchett is on the side of the common man, the ordinary person. We know this, because he has his heroine shout at another character that they’re failing to respect the common man, that they’re being patronising, that these are real people. OK. Except… well, the gist of it seems to be that we should accept that because these are real people, rather than witches or novelists, they’re all cretins. The Common Man, with his, to quote, “peasant ignorance”, is portrayed throughout as a bumbling nincompoop, barely able to survive a day without killing itself through stupidity, and desparate, no crying out even, to be manipulated, patronised, tyrannised and spoken down to by a properly educated sensible person.

That’s a little less unpleasant when we’re in Ankh-Morpork with Vetinari, where the properly educated sensible person is ruling the city, and the affairs of high politics are perhaps understandably not foremost in the minds of the citizenry. It’s less forgivable when we’re dealing with small communities of farmers and the most basic day-to-day decisions. And again, there’s nothing new here: this is inherent to the idea of the witches. But the difference is, it used to be that that we were told that the witches could serve a valuable purpose, that sometimes people would turn to them for help. But now it’s gotten to the stage where they need to ‘help’ (i.e. control) every single element of everybody’s lives because everyone else is too stupid to live. [In the earliest books, occasional worried people would make their way to Granny’s door for advice in a crisis; here, constant streams of people flock to every witch (and there’s a vast number of them) for instruction regarding the most minor things.]

And more, everybody is begging to be controlled because they know they’re so inferior. Oh no, not inferior, that’s the point. Nobody in the book actually says “how dare you look down on them! Just because they’re brainless idiots who are stupider, more ignorant, more irrational, less self-aware, less wise, less disciplined, less moral, and generally less likeable than us, doesn’t mean they’re inferior! Apart from in the obvious ways!”… but it almost feels like they do. “We must respect them,” they don’t quite say in so many words, “by making them do what we know they ought to do and not caring about their own feelings in the matter because what do they know they’re just peasants!”

So yes, that’s an irritation. And there’s a subplot that isn’t really necessary, but isn’t fleshed out enough to stand by itself either. And the ending… well it makes sense, but it seems to all happen a bit too quickly.

And the structural gimmick, while a break from Pratchett’s normal linnear methods, and while not exactly a failure, also don’t fully convince.

And “boffo” is a stupid word.

Oh, and there’s sort of a feeling that this is all set in a very small world, in a controlled plot, with a small cast of characters and none of the sense of scope, and of chaos, that the more ‘adult’ Discworld novels have.

But all that aside….

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…this is a fantastic book.

Wintersmith is clearly the best of the first three Tiffany books, and while it may not have the depth to really rank with Pratchett’s greatest it certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as them. The writing is consistantly fantastic; the imagery constantly intriguing. It is highly polished, yet retains its character. It is, in essence, a Pratchett book that does almost everything right – for the handful of things it doesn’t get quite right, see above. There’s not a lot else to say, really.

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Adrenaline: 3/5.

Emotion: 3/5.

Thought: 4/5.

Beauty: 5/5.

Craft: 5/5.

Endearingness: 4/5.

Originality: 3/5.

[sorry! Left this in a file for too long before filling in the words here… now I don’t have any words to put it. Given how many Pratchett books I’ve reviewed already, however, the words probably aren’t necessary anyway at this point.]

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD.

 

errr…. yes. It’s possible the balance of this review has been a tad misleading? It’s just really difficult to write about someone getting things really right that you’ve already described them getting partly, mostly or completely right in 40 other books…. it’s much easier to compile the wrong notes, as there are are so many fewer of them…