Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

One day, on a summer’s afternoon, a young Oxonian mathematical lecturer and his friend were taking some of the children of the Dean (his boss) out for a rowing trip on the Isis. To pass the time, the mathematician, Charles Dodgson, began to tell a rather silly story to the kids about a fantastical adventure that might happen to them – or, at least, to his favourite of them, young Alice. But Dodgson had a rather hyperactive mind – he was so constantly inventing things, from an electoral system (Dodgson’s Method) to a steering mechanism for a tricycle, to a device for making it easier to read books sideways, to a double-sided adhesive, to a forerunner of Scrabble, that one of the things he felt the need to invent was a cipher system to make it easier to write down inventions in the middle of the night without having to light a lamp. With that sort of mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that his mind may have wandered from the narrative task at hand – and so, little echoes of his day-job perhaps filtered through in the heat haze over the river, making his story unusually odd.

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One of Dodgson’s long-term interests was logic – he later invented a board game to symbolise and teach logical inferences, and one of his last publications was a textbook for a new approach to symbolic logic – and while his professional interest lay no doubt in the mathematical side of the topic, he appears to have been troubled (or at least tickled) by broader, more fundamental questions about the philosophy of logic. Something about the foundations of philosophical logic just didn’t sit right with him; indeed, one of Dodgson’s most lasting contributions has been an article he wrote for the prestigious philosophical journal Mind, in preparation for his symbolic logic book, in which he poses a troubling paradox (in the form of a Platonic dialogue between Achilles and a tortoise, the two heroes of one of Zeno’s pardoxes) that appears to strike at the heart of the concept of deduction itself* – it’s one of those problems that has never really been taken seriously, but that has never quite gone away either, and that has sporadically spurred quite notable philosophers to reconsider it, from Bertrand Russell’s original ‘first step’ to addressing it, through to Simon Blackburn in a centenary article for the same journal. Dodgson thus seems to have regarded logic from two sides: on the one hand, qua mathematics lecturer, he probably admired its rigour and wished more people would understand and employ it (witness his board game idea); but at the same time, privately, he seems to have had his doubts. In this dual mood, Dodgson sprinkled his story to Alice – as adults are wont to do – with little things to make her think, and that might perhaps help him think through some problems at the same time.

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Alice loved it. She begged Dodgson to write the story down, and, reluctantly, he did so. But he wasn’t sure: was this really something worth reading? Now, as it turned out, Dodgson wasn’t the first to have the idea of attempting to convey philosophical theories through the medium of a “fairy tale”. George MacDonald had published his first masterpiece, Phantastes, perhaps the seminal work of all modern fantasy (and an allegory of Romanticist Christian faith), only a few years before (The Princess and the Goblin would follow a decade later). If anyone could tell Dodgson if his little nonsense story had some lasting value, it was surely MacDonald. And – mirabile dictu! – the two men were actually friends. MacDonald had taken up residence in Hastings, where Dodgson periodically visited his aunts, and at some point Dodgson had sought help for his life-long stammer from a homeopathic doctor who knew MacDonald well. Though the loquacious MacDonald and the cripplingly shy Dodgson seemed superficially as different as two intellectual men could be, the doctor had seen a likeness in them and had brought the two men together. They had become good friends, Dodgson quickly becoming a favourite with MacDonald’s children, and undoubtedly MacDonald’s inspiration was brewing in Dodgson’s peculiar imagination as he told his tale to another friend’s daughter, young Alice. Phantastes, after all, sees its hero chasing a ‘white lady’ through a narrow tunnel into the ground, and eventually encountering there a ‘white rabbit’. Indeed, less than a week after telling his story to Alice, Dodgson was accompanying MacDonald to his publisher with the final manuscript of his latest fantasy story, ‘The Light Princess’. Carroll in turn brought his manuscript to MacDonald and asked his opinion, but it wasn’t MacDonald’s opinion he received: instead, MacDonald’s wife read the story to their children, who enthusiastically demanded another 60,000 volumes of the same. That was good enough for Dodgson. Mindful of not sullying his academic reputation with children’s nonsense, he fell back on a word-play pseudonym he’d devised some years earlier, ‘Lewis Carroll’ (an inverted translation of his given names, Charles Lutwidge, into Latin and back into English (Charles>Carolus>Carroll, Lutwidge>Ludovicus>Lewis)), and published – to overwhelming commercial success.

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[[OK, let’s get this out of the way: Dodgson’s awkwardness and oddness, his popularity with (and affection for) children, his lack of well-publicised sexual affairs, his overwhelming feelings of guilt and worthlessness, an apparent sudden rupture between him and Alice’s family, and the fact that his diary entries from the years when he knew Alice are mysteriously missing, combined with his almost obsessive fondness for painting and photographing naked young girls, have for a long time convinced many people that the beloved children’s author was a paedophile, and that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born not out of some innocent entertainment but as part of a campaign of sexual abuse and grooming directed at the young girl. Undoubtedly, this is possible. It would fit the evidence.

But more recently, others have questioned this easy assumption. His artwork, which seems so damning to modern eyes, was in no way unusual for the child-cult of the Victorian era – a time in which naked young girls were so uncontroversial a symbol of innocence and joy that they were one of the most popular subjects of Christmas cards. His evident strangeness may now more sympathetically be seen as just a non-neurotypical mind that should not be shocking or alarming in a professional mathematician and inveterate inventor. Perhaps today we’d simply say that he fell somewhere on the spectrum. And is it surprising if a somewhat odd man, shy, with a stammer, perhaps not entirely comfortable with the niceties of adult social interaction, might find it a relief to spend time in the simpler company of his friends’ children? Perhaps a lack of girlfriends was just a sign of a somewhat asexual nature – or just a sign that he struggled to get dates? More recent researchers have suggested in fact that he may have had liaisons with adult women, but that – given his position as a teacher, a church deacon, and a children’s author, all while being an unmarried man, his friends and family may actively have covered up evidence of such affairs and intentionally presented this image of him as an innocent, child-obsessed celibate, in order to preserve his reputation, not realising what this may suggest to more cynical later generations. Indeed, it’s been suggestion that the sudden break with Alice’s family may have been the result of a different love affair – not with Alice, but with her elder sister, or indeed even with her mother. If he was indeed caught sleeping with his boss’s wife, that would certainly explain the ‘rupture’… as for his removing parts of his diary and his feelings of guilt – well, there are a great many reasons for that. After all, it’s not as though he were a happy man, clearly suffering from depression in later life, not to mention suspected of epilepsy or a similar neurological condition. A religiously-intense feeling of worthlessness could be a symptom of either a psychological or a neurological condition – or, of course, Dodgson could have accurately known himself to have been an utter bastard in any number of other private ways than paedophilia.

So the alternative, innocent hypothesis seems just as plausible as the accusation. It’s true that, were Dodgson alive today, you’d probably want him thoroughly vetted before being given a job at a primary school – he’s the sort of person about whom people knowingly say “oh, yes, well I’m not surprised…” when they appear on the news facing trial. But that doesn’t actually mean he was guilty of anything. Given that nothing concrete can be proven, that innocent explanations appear perfectly viable, and that everyone remotely connected to the situation is long since dead, I’d prefer to lay the suspicions of later readers to one side and not have them affect my experience of his writing…]]

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Unfortunately, it’s hard not to escape the thought that Dodgson’s novel is rather misshelved today. It’s a classic of children’s literature… but in truth, its primary interest is as a philosophical call-to-arms. Dodgson does not appear to be attempting to advance any specific theory; rather, the novel is built around a long series of philosopical aphorisms (in the technical sense – darts to sting the reader into thinking). Strikingly, most of these aphorisms concern issues that would later pre-occupy Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, the “mad hatter’s tea party” section in particular reads suspiciously like a time-traveller’s memory of having read the early chapters of the Philosophical Investigations.

One recurring concern is the confusion of, as Wittgenstein phrases it, criteria and symptoms. A criterion indicates the truth of something by definition, while a symptom does so only empirically; but the language treats both of these the same, and in many cases it is not clear whether a particular thing ought to be considered a symptom or a criterion – as Wittgenstein points out, in the history of medicine many indications once treated as symptoms have come to be regarded as criteria, while many criteria are now considered only symptoms. It’s easy, therefore, to become confused, and, accordingly, Alice repeatedly mistakes a symptom for a criterion. When deciding to drink from a bottle, for instance, she reasons that, from what she’s been taught, drinking poison is a bad idea, and that poison comes in bottles with a ‘poison’ label, but that the bottle in question lacks such a label, so its contents are safe to drink. [A warning label is a symptom of being poisonous, but it is not a necessary criterion!] Likewise, finding herself in a pool of her own tears, she thinks for a moment that she is in the sea – and if she is in the sea, she can simply return home by train. [For a Victorian child of the holidaying class, being at the seaside is a symptom of having travelled by train – but not a sufficient criterion!] And again (these examples all just from the opening chapters), Alice worries that she has become stupid, and that she will therefore have no toys to play with – since she regards stupidity as a criterion of poor education, which she regards as a criterion of low class, which she regards as a criterion of material poverty. In fact, these things are, at most, only symptoms.

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More generally, most of the novel revolves around characters, often Alice, acting as, in a way, holy fools – innocents who take things at face value to demonstrate underlying complexities. In particular, Dodgson is clearly fascinated, like Wittgenstein, by the ways in which language, and superficial reasoning based upon language, fails to reflect differences in underlying semantics. Like Wittgenstein, and indeed Russell, he wishes to point out that just because you can ask a question doesn’t mean that the question makes sense – and just because two things are treated the same in the syntax of the language, doesn’t mean they can be treated the same in the syntax of logic.

Take, for example, the famous section in which a “Cheshire cat” disappears, a bit at a time, leaving only its grin. It’s a memorable moment in children’s literature. But it also has a the form of a classic philosophical thought-experiment. When Alice comments that it’s common to see a cat without a grin, but that she’s never before seen a grin without a cat, what Dodgson is getting at is that while ‘cat’ and ‘grin’ are linguistically-syntactically equivalent nouns (a grammatical sentence with one will remain grammatical with another), they are not, seemingly, logically-syntactically equivalent (a logically coherent proposition with one with not necessarily remain coherent with the other). The cat, that is, is an object, or a substance, while the grin is an action, a state, or a property – you cannot have a grin without a grinner. To put it another way: English, unlike many languages, allows a sentence like “the cat is grinning”, with an agent and an action, to be unproblematically transformed into “the cat has a grin”, with seemingly two ‘objects’. We are often taught that nouns are ‘object words’ and verbs are ‘action words’, as though ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ were semantic categories; but of course, as Dodgson is pointing out, this is not true in the slightest.

[of course, later philosophers like Whitehead and Ramsay would in turn attack the assumptions of this aphorism, by arguing either that all ‘objects’, like cats, are really actions or events, or that ‘objects’, like cats, do not exist, except nominally as bearers of properties like grins.]

Similarly, another repeating concern is the question that would later become associated (through Russell’s polemic) with Meinong: are non-existing things real? [if not, how can they have, or not have, certain properties? If they don’t have properties, how can some things we say about them be true, and others false?] So Alice wonders about what candle flames are like when they’ve been put out, and about classic paradoxes of change and identity (such as: is she the same person she was yesterday? If not, who is she? Or was she? What happened to the old Alice and where did the new Alice come from?). And the change questions also raise a classic Wittgenstein (and Nietzsche) issue: how can consistency be measured, or obedience to a rule or standard, without being sure that the standard of measurement is itself consistent? But how can a standard of measurement be known to be consistent, unless it is itself being measured by another, more authoritative, standard (which then is susceptible to the same objection?). So Alice puts her hand on her head to judge whether she is becoming taller or shorter, in exactly the same way that, for example, Wittgenstein characterises the attempts of those who believe they can describe their own internal feelings through a consistent ‘private language’.

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These are just a few snippets of Dodgson’s pervasive concerns. They’re amusing and thought-provoking, for the philosophically-inclined reader (which, fortunately, includes many if not most children).

But what about the rest? Is it actually a good novel?

There, unfortunately, Dodgson is rather less accomplished.

The character of Alice, isn’t. She has very little actual characterisation, and primarily her characterisation is as a narcissistic, wittering simpleton, who spews forth enthusiastic but pointless rivers of words about whatever’s on whatever nugatory jot passes for her mind. So, for example, she spends the early chapters offending and frightening small talking animals by obsessively telling them how her cat loves eating animals like them.

I guess I can see what he’s doing. Young children often find it hilarious when they’re affectionately mocked by someone they trust, and I guess Dodgson is just poking fun at the real Alice’s enthusiasm and derailing speech. But it’s a difficult thing to gauge in the abstract, and by doing it so bluntly, and in such a public forum, it kind of feels as though we’re watching a grown man bullying a girl who can’t fight back (because she’s a child, because this is a novel, and because she’s dead). It also, of course, is intensely irritating, and almost never funny. Doubtless, in that regard, the passage of time has not been kind – “what a Victorian gentleman finds it hilarious to imagine a middle-class Victorian young girl to say” and “what a modern audience will laugh at” are two very different things.

[and specifically: the hilarity of ‘misremembered’ but otherwise banal doggerel lyrics to popular banal doggerel songs and poems of the 1850s was evidentally much greater in 1860 than today. Carroll does have a knack for a memorable line, and a few snippets of doggerel are memorable in their way – particularly the famous last verse of “Will you walk a little faster”, but by and large these pop culture parodies are a waste of wordcount for the modern reader.]

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It should also be said that Dodgson does not have any knack whatsoever for realistic or compelling dialogue, or indeed prose in general. While there are a few pithy lines of description, most of the memorable lines in the novel are found in intentionally-unrealistic witty dialogue. Which is fair enough in its own right, of course; but it does rather leave the impression of a chocolate chip biscuit made by someone with a large supply of chocolate chips but only the vaguest concept of biscuit. The good bits are there, but it would be nice if there were some sort of enjoyable linking material holding them together.

Because if you’re looking for linking material, don’t look at the plot. The plot is just that a sequence of events occured. The events themselves make either no sense, or only metaphorical sense, and the sequence as a whole is more or less random, with no broader significance or narrative arc. Which I suppose is no great suprise coming from a ‘story’ that’s just what some guy with a bit of heatstroke one day mumbled stream-of-consciousness-style to entertain a listening child.

What this all means is that, while the nostalgic adult reader may recall a whole bunch of moments from the novel, she is likely to find that the thing itself, in real rather than remembered form, is something of a chore to hack through – many of the best lines would work better if transplanted to a genre such as ‘demotivational posters’ or ‘witty postcards’, if only these options had been available to Carroll at the time. That’s not meant to be entirely disparaging, by the way. Of course aphorisms like “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” – “How do you know I’m mad?” – “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here” are great in their way, pithy and memorable and iconic, and help to illustrate a common fallacy in thinking. [two, actually – circular reasoning, and, again, confusion of symptoms with criteria]. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the novel that contains them is a good novel!

[the nostalgic reader is also likely to discover, incidentally that many of the most iconic moments from this novel aren’t actually from this novel at all, but from its sequel, Through the Looking Glass…]

In sum, then…

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Adrenaline: 1/5. There is very little sense of plot progression at all, and no sense of jeopardy. This is not an exciting novel, unless you’re five.

Emotion: 1/5. There is very little emotional dimension to this novel; and what emotion there is (Alice being upset at being the wrong size, for instance) is almost entirely enervated by the mannered and remote style and the lack of any strong characterisation.

Thought: 4/5. The novel continually – almost literally continually – is raising thought-provoking paradoxes. The thoughts they provoke are brief and superficial – they’re questions, not answers – but they are thoughts.

Beauty: 4/5. On the one hand, Dodgson’s prose isn’t great. On the other hand, it’s not awful, and it’s enriched by an indubitable stock of beautiful quips, witticisms, proverbs and aphorisms.

Craft: 2/5. Dodgson is witty, with an eye for paradox and an ear for a catchphrase. But he shows little skill in crafting characters, speeches (as a general rule, the quality of each utterance here is inversely proportional to its length!), scenes, or arcs. I get the feeling – a biased feeling, given what I know of the rest of his output – that his talents would better equip him to be a poet than a novelist.

Endearingness: 3/5. There are memorable, likeable moments, and when he’s on form Dodgson is fun to listen to. But when he’s just running on to fill the gaps, he’s irritating and frankly boorish.

Originality: 5/5. Nonsense is surprisingly hard to write – good nonsense needs depth, or else it too quickly becomes repetitive. Dodgson does have some depth, and some imagination too, and as a result his sequence of unfortunate events is utterly distinctive.

Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD. I find myself, appropriately enough, in two minds. On the one hand, I want to say that this is a bad book, but one with redeeming features. When I think about the process of reading it, tolerating long sections for a rewarding aphorism in a sea of words, that’s what I think. On the other hand, I want to say that this is actually a good book. Particular when I think just about the memorable, and frankly beautiful good lines, which after all are what I’ll remember longest. So perhaps, overall, it’s fair to split the difference and call this, on average, ‘not bad’. An unusual sort of ‘not bad’…

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Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Reading a novel often throws up half-random symmetries between the reader’s mind and the text of the novel – echoes, intuitions, memories, premonitions. The reader has a thought, and lo and behold the same thought is suddenly seen in the text itself. Sometimes this is pleasing – proof that the writer is thinking along the same lines, and to the same depth, as the reader, and hence that the investment of thought on the part of the reader is not in vain. Other times it is frustrating – a sign that the writer is following a path too obvious, too familiar.

In the case of Before They Are Hanged, it is… odd.

Halfway through, you see, I realised something: if you wanted to read this trilogy, you could pretty much skip the first volume, The Blade Itself. It’s not a short novel, but effectively nothing happens in it that is of any significant relevance to this sequel. Characters were introduced, but because they were so superficial and devoid of detail or depth, and because the sequel moves them all entirely out of the environments where we met them, the first book is no better an introduction than a few pages of explanation at the beginning of the second would be. Likewise, because the ongoing ‘plot’ for the trilogy was only introduced at the very end of the first installment, and remains highly vague well into the second, you’re not really missing anything if you haven’t read it. If you just picked up Before They Are Hanged, I’m not sure you’d be very much worse off, in terms of understanding the characters, the setting and the events, than if you’d dutifully toiled through that first volume. Certainly, any required backstory could easily have been added to this novel with a bit more fleshing out of the early chapters and perhaps a prologue or the like. How odd, I thought, to write a three-book story and have the first book be basically pointless!

And here’s where the symmetry enters in. Because Before They Are Hanged is effectively three books in one: three plots that, other than a line here or there reminding us that this is all on the same planet, have no practical ties to one another, and only the most tangential of theoretical connexions (and that, of course, are all only loosely connected (by shared characters) to anything that happened in the first book). Which of these plot, we might wonder, is the ‘real’ plot, the plot that actually matters?

Surprise! None of them do! Halfway through the novel, I realised in my own head that the first novel had been a massive block of filler that contributed almost nothing to the plot; and by the end of the novel the author has pretty much put down in print that exactly the same is true of the second volume too. Presumably some passing reference will be made in the third volume to some things that happened here – we have at least established a theoretical threat that perhaps could be dealt with (or perhaps not – there’s little impression of urgency) – but for now, all three plots have come to “fuck you for reading!” dead ends, and almost everything that has happened in the books so far is, at least on the face of it (though I can see a few obvious loopholes) pointless.

 

It’s a bold move, that. It’s kind of like offering to shake hands with someone, and then pulling your hand away, slapping them in the face, and posing for the crowd to tell you how Rebellious and Cool and Convention-Breaking you’re being. I kind of get the theory. It’s the old ‘middle novel’ thing, letting your heroes lose for a while. It’s The Empire Strikes Back. If, you know, it turned out Yoda had been a con-man after all, Darth Vader had invaded the wrong cloud city, and when he did finally get to set up a video-conference with Luke he had delivered the immortal words: “Luke… I am… unaware of who your father is. …But who cares anyway? …Look, a pony! I’m going to go look at the pony now. Who are are you again?”

Oh sure, that would be funny in the moment. But it would also leave you at the end of the film wondering why you bothered sitting through a rather boring film in which little happened, if it turns out none of what happened mattered anyway? Because we’re not talking a cunning, ironic deconstruction of the tropes in which the characters and the audience learn something about themselves. We’re talking straightforward, by-the-book pulp fiction, only with a ‘the princess is in another castle!’ thrown in at the end.

Then again, I can see why the author might have felt the need to stretch for the big box marked “complete lack of subtlety” when he felt the time had come for his Big Twist. Because the rest of the book has its contents seemingly assembled out of a bargain bin of 1980s cheese.

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… “now come on, old chap, don’t be so bally unkind!” you may be thinking. Or perhaps would have been, if, like my subconscious, you watched too many episodes of Jeeves and Wooster at a formative young age. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

No, no it’s not.

To recap here, I actually didn’t hate the first book (hence my reading the second…). The Blade Itself was, by the standards of cheap pulp fantasy, pretty solid, and decently promising. It was, to be sure “intensely conventional”, and distinctly badly-written in parts, but it was ambitious in its apparent scope and had some good moments. I hoped that the second book would continue the trajectory of improvement that the first book seemed to show.

And on that score, I’m not entirely disappointed. On the one hand, there’s been no radical change here: as expected, the tone, style and content of the book is broadly similar to that of its predecessor. It remains within what we might call an Eddings-Gemmell-Salvatore triangle of 80’s pulp; indeed, the closeness with which details of the plot track those of Edding’s sagas seems to be beyond the point of mere coincidence. It reads almost like an homage, it’s so familiar – the only real novelty is that people say ‘fuck’, rather than the author telling us that they swore.

On the other hand, if it’s doing the same thing, it’s at least doing the same thing better. Most obviously, the writing is manifestly better – there are far fewer moments of cringe-inducingly-bad prose and dialogue than before; much of the time, it’s almost passable. For one thing, the hypercaffeinated plague of exclamation marks in the first novel seems to have been held at bay this time, at least temporarily…

Improvement beyond that wasn’t clear at first: the structure of the novel is head-scratching, since despite having three plots it couldn’t find anything interesting with which to fill the first half of the book. Dull travelogue punctuated by scenes of people talking predictably. But things did take a turn halfway through, with a couple of genuinely interesting scenes that shifted away, if only temporarily, from the expected. It would make for a great lesson for prospective readers: see how dramatically a story can be improved when you let characters actually have meaningful conversations. For a book and a half, Abercrombie leant too heavily on mysteriousness to drive engagement; halfway through this volume, he and his characters seem to surrender and start talking about their backstories and the world, and it’s a remarkable leap forward. The most effective thing here is the same as the most effective thing in the Belgariad: the sense of deep time, of long histories, of complex feelings (it’s no surprise that when Eddings returned to the world of the Belgariad and the Mallorean, he did so with not one but two fan-pleasing millennia-long backstories; likewise, I can’t help but feel that “Bayaz the Sorceror” would be a much more interesting book than the one we were actually given).

Another change is that Abercrombie finally lives up to his own mystique and stops being so prudish about sex and violence. In the first book, they were superficially flaunted, but the camera shied away and the narrator got all coy and giggly whenever things really got real; here, we do actually have a couple of sex scenes and some unpleasant war wounds. That’s not a virtue in itself – it’s a matter of style – but it does at least diminish the sense of punk-poseur pretentiousness I couldn’t escape in the first book. If you’re going to act all rough and crude and telling-it-like-it-is, you have to back that up when the crunch comes. It’s also effective in this book as a note of… sincerity? In such a conventional book, in which people talk and act often more like cartoon characters than like real people, being able to pierce through that unreal haze with the occasional agony and blood and fornication is a real help in keeping the book feeling sincere and human.

Although, on the other hand, it does mean putting up with the worst sex-dialogue ever. Dude, “Urrr” is not something that needs to be painstakingly transcribed ten times in a paragraph. The “urrrs” go without saying…

That ostentatious awfulness of dialogue, unfortunately, feels like just one of a long series of Abercrombie’s poseur moments. It feels at times, particularly early in the novel, as though the author has just discovered books and wants to show off what he’s learnt. We get a lot of in-your-face-obvious “tricks”, the sort of thing a wise author does once or twice in their career, and the schoolchild does in every paragraph. Tricks like… having dialogue scenes in which one character gives long paragraphs of serious infodump, and the other character lampshades the fact it’s infodump by interrupting with “hmm”, “errr”, “yes” and other one-word replies, because if you do that in a sitcom it’s funny because it’s awkward, and ironic, get it? Except that here it’s used in what’s meant to be an actually serious scene. Or tricks like… wouldn’t it be cool to have a scene end with a word or phrase, ideally in dialogue, and then you could open the next scene with the same word or phrase, but with a different meaning? Because when they do that on TV, that’s cool, right? Cartoons do that all the time, it’s funny, it’s clever…

This book is often funny and clever. You know that famous moment, a once or twice every episode, just before a scene cut, in CSI: Miami, where David Carruso says most of something, pauses meaningfully, then puts on his sunglasses (or takes them off, depending) and says the last word of the sentence and OH MY GOD ITS A PUN WOW THAT’S SO FUNNY AND CLEVER!!!… ? Yeah, Abercrombie is funny and clever like that.

Again.

And again.

And again.

Seriously, you can almost hear the the pause for applause while he waits for you to say “mind. blown. dude.” each time. [And CSI:Miami fans who are also fans of fantasy will probably love this book.]

My mind was not blown. I’ve read all those flamboyant moments before, done better, and even when they do work, they’re used here to distract from what is otherwise (until the ‘fuck you’ twists) a completely conventional plot.

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The characterisation, though, is probably the novel’s biggest problem. The writing of the core cast of characters has improved somewhat since The Blade Itself, but we’re still basicaly dealing with recycled archetypes, who are given little opportunity for meaningful development or even exposition – those opportunities, when they do come, are the best bits of the book, but they left me wishing we could have skipped some of the travelogue and the repetitive ‘witty’ conversations (another reason I was thinking of Eddings throughout…) to focus more on those moments of sincerity and importance. But no, the problem isn’t the protagonists. It’s everyone else.

I think I commented in my last review that one of the big reasons I couldn’t shake the echo of Eddings was the fact that virtually everyone who was not a protagonist was transparantly and ostentatiously moronic, a parade of blustering buffoons who would have looked two-dimensional and absurd in the context of a children’s cartoon, let alone an actual novel, and who exist only for our protagonists to sneer at, prove themselves better than (with laughable ease) and occasionally murder with little regret. In Before They Are Hanged, a few tendrils of substance do sneak into one or two of the supporting cast, but by and large the problem remains unaddressed – and the fact that we’re often now dealing with different total idiots than in the first novel only exacerbates the inescapability of this narrative crutch. If our protagonist is defeating an enemy who equally easily could be defeated by three leaves of wet cabbage and a wordsearch, it entirely undermines any sense of accomplishment that might result. If our protagonist is in conceptual disagreement with an opponant who would not be able to pick out a mongoose from a mushroom salad, there is no sense of tension or uncertainty or moral unease. It is no surprise that the only effective antagonists in the novel spend most of the time hundreds or thousands of miles from any viewpoint character, and never appear on the page. And if the author insists on treating 99% of the human race with utter, worm-torturing contempt, reserving any hint of empathy or understanding only for his chosen band of ultraviolent ubermenschen, it makes it extremely difficult to like him. And yes, of course, that needn’t matter. But a novel has to keep its readers positively engaged – they must not grow too bored, too disgusted, or above all too inclined to mockery – and the goodwill of the reader is often essential in accomplishing that. Successful authors usually are so because they have the reader rooting for them – the reader hopes the writer succeeds in overcoming the reader’s own suspicion. Without that support, it is hard for even the greatest work to really land with the audience – which is why, after all, even great classics are widely hated when we’re forced against our will to read them at school. Abercrombie certainly is not odious as an author – I was not actively willing him to fail – but his air of superiority (over his characters and seemingly us) was offputting and undermined the goodwill I might otherwise have felt for him and his work.

On which note, let’s just say: the issues with women and ethnic minorities in the first novel have not gone away here. Women in particular continue to be pigeonholed into dismissive stereotypes and made use of by the plot in disrespectful and distasteful ways – and no, having a badass female character does not balance that out when she’s (a cliché) badass because she’s a rape victim and she’s constantly being lectured by men who know better than her. That does not help. Nor does having one protagonist be slightly less appallingly racist toward black people really deal with the fact that the underlying conflict is between the ‘good’ white Europeans and the armies of black-skinned, literally-demonic fantasy-Islam. I’m a reasonable person, and I’m certainly no ‘social justice warrior’ or the like – I often find these complaints overblown and uncharitable – and there’s nothing here that I find inherently unforgivable by itself. But the fact that he does all these things with seemingly no nuance (other than that the ‘good’ guys are mildly unpleasant themselves, in an un-condemned way), or awareness, or human empathy, really leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

If the novel does have a particular strength, it’s in its combat scenes. Combat in The Blade Itself was a mixed bag – hamstrung by the primary-school-level prose, and often confused, but nonetheless dramatic. Before They Are Hanged takes that drama – founded on a combination of compelling TV images and very sound pacing decisions – and elevates it further, improving the prose and burnishing the clarity. Some scenes work better than others – I found Abercrombie’s take on the hoary old “city beseiged by hopeless odds” trope (a la Dros Delnoch, a la Armengar, a la Minas Tirith) frankly rather weak* – but in general he is able to craft compelling action sequences that make the second half of the novel as kinetic as the first half is slow.

 

*and showing an unsure grasp of mathematics and tactics. While we’re assured that the Sultan has effectively an infinite supply of troops, so the situation will become hopeless eventually one way or another, the actual troop numbers we’re given at first, which terrify the defenders, ought not so much as raise a sweat, given how impregnable the defences appear – strong fortifications need truly overwhelming odds to subdue! Similarly, the repeated discussions of how many days or weeks the defenders might hold out seems bafflingly ignorant of how sieges actually worked. Consider Vienna, for example. Suleiman attempted to storm Vienna for weeks, with 10-to-1 odds, before logistics forced him to retreat without having had the slightest success. A century later, Mehmed’s army under Mustafa Pasha struggled to overwhelm the city by any means possible for two months, succeeding only in breaking through some outer defences, before a united European relief army saved the day – again, Mustafa had around 10-1 odds. Corvinus himself, a century before Suleiman, did succeed in taking the city – but he too had a 10-1 advantage in troops, and it took him six months. And Vienna wasn’t even particularly defensible. Abercrombie’s city is tantamount to impregnable in design, and clearly based upon Tyre**: in real life, the civilians of Tyre, having revolted, held out against the massed might of the Fatimid Empire for two entire years. A couple of centuries later, the civilians again held out, this time against a Venetian army equipped with a huge fleet, for six months before negotiating a non-violent surrender. I don’t get the sense at any point that Abercrombie really understands the structures and forces he’s discussing, not just in the sense of not being a war studies graduate (or a politics graduate, or a history graduate, or a sociology…) but even in the sense of the sort of background level of understanding of fauxdiaeval Europe that you’d expect from an epic fantasy fan. Instead, it often feels as though he’s invoking tropes without really comprehending their import, and that’s perhaps most obvious in the military scenes, which, as effective as they are on the level of the individual characters, rarely seem to make much geographical or tactical sense overall.

 

 

And really, what more do we really want? Much of my criticism here comes from the point of view of having heard for a decade now how brilliant, how revolutionary, Abercrombie’s contribution to the fantasy genre was. Now that I’m finally reading him, I’m disappointed to find him so conventional, so predictable, so meek, and frankly so unaccomplished in his technique. I expected to find these books aesthetically challenging – given the loud words on both sides spoken about the gulf between “traditional” fantasy and “grimdark” – and yet instead I’m disheartened to find this as challenging as a waffle. If this is the salvation of fantasy – if this is what can get pulses racing as exceptional and seminal – then fantasy is in a poor state indeed.

But is that a fair way to come to a book? Well, yes, in part. Every book holds the hope of excellence – it’s a part of why we put up with a lot of trash. It’s fair to observe when excellence is not delivered – particularly when the marketing around an author is so loud and encomious. Yet at the same time, it’s important not to overlook the simple pleasures of adequate literature: sometimes, we don’t need excellence, or originality, but just a moderately compelling read. And, at least in the second half, Before They Are Hanged delivers.

Nonetheless, I’m left in an odd position here, when it comes to comparing this volume to the earlier The Blade Itself. On the one hand, this is unambiguously a better book: the prose has taken a big step forward, and about halfway through the book there are further big steps up in both characterisation and action.

At the same time, however, it’s perhaps a more disheartening book, seen in its larger context. The Blade Itself was a striking debut into the genre, a distinctive authorial voice, that may have suffered from a multitude of faults – difficulties with prose and dialogue, a lack of originality, and a rather static and disjointed narrative – but that nonetheless seemed potentially to be pointing to an interesting trilogy as the author got his act together and worked out what he was doing. [And, in fairness, I’d note that both A Game of Thrones and Assassin’s Apprentice, the opening installments of probably the two most accomplished fantasy epic cycles of recent decades, have their own teething issues with tone and prose and and so on – and Martin and Hobb were far, far more experienced writers at the time of those novels than Abercrombie was at the time of his.] Yes, The Blade Itself felt a little like the author clearing his throat, but it ended with him drawing breath, and I wanted to find out what he wanted to say.

Unfortunately, in Before They Are Hanged, the author’s voice may be steadier, but he still doesn’t seem to know his lines. We’re left now, heading into the concluding volume, at a place that most trilogies have reached by at least the end of the first book, if not actually the end of the first book’s prologue. It’s almost inconceivable that a satisfying story could be concluded in the one (short!) remaining volume: I don’t doubt, given the ramped-up pace of the end of this one, that Last Argument of Kings will be an eventful read full of momentarily engaging narrative busy-work, but how can it possibly work as the conclusion of a trilogy that’s barely even begun?

So while Before They Are Hanged is a significant improvement in quality as a novel, it’s also a disheartening stagnation as part of a larger tale.

Where am I left, then? Well, I’ll finish the trilogy, undoubtedly, though not immediately. Will I carry on and read more Abercrombie? I don’t know. I thought, partway through this book, that I wouldn’t. But Before They Are Hanged does end strongly (in quality if not in decision-making), and I think now that I wouldn’t rule out a return to the author. It’s passable stuff, and, let’s be honest here, epic fantasy isn’t brimming over with works of genius. It’s technically better, if less memorable, than most of the 1980s pulp it’s so closely emulating. And who knows, maybe the finale will actually live up to its billing?

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Adrenaline: 3/5. A split decision here. The second half of the book was genuinely compelling, if not thrilling, buoyed by some strong action sequences; the first half, on the other hand, was, while not utterly dire, certainly a little dull, centred on plodding travelogues and busywork. So, on average…

Emotion: 2/5. I think perhaps my biggest problem with the novel is the relative lack of emotional engagement. The characters for the most part hit the tetrafecta of alienation: they are not admirable, nor capable, nor funny, nor complex. If a character is all four, the audience has a good chance of adoring them and caring deeply about them. If a character is three out of four, they can still be a fan favourite and an engaging protagonist. If a character is two out of four, they can be a solid viewpoint character. If they are at least one of those four things, the reader can find the silver lining, struggle through and engage with them despite the limitations of the book; but if a character isn’t any of those four, it’s really difficult to viscerally care what happens to them. I didn’t care about any of the characters here (though, to be fair, Logen is a little more engaging this time than in the first volume). It also doesn’t help that I’ve not been given any reason to care about the world as a whole or any aspect of the plot (a downside of stressing how awful everything is is that it stops seeming so important whether one awful person defeats another awful person or vice versa…).

Thought: 3/5. There’s a decent, but unremarkable, amount of cogitation called for here – much of it due to how much of the plot and the setting is kept off the page and left to the reader to work out for themselves. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s enough to stop my brain freezing over with boredom.

Beauty: 3/5. Meh.

Craft: 3/5. This was a demerit for the first volume, and to be fair to the author I think he’s improved his technical side considerably, in almost every way. Nonetheless, I would still not be able to say that this was above average in craftsmanship. It’s become… acceptable. [which I guess is maybe above average for a lot of fantasy, but…]

Endearingness: 2/5. There were times when I thought this would go up a notch, as the author introduced moments of pathos and sympathy – and, in the action scenes, a little bit of fun. But no. Again, the unappealing characters are a problem here, as are the tone-deafness on sensitive issues and the blatent manipulativeness of some sections.

Originality: 3/5. On the micro level, the DNA of conventional old-school fantasy still runs through every cell of the novel – it’s laden with hoary old tropes. But with the plot having expanded since the first volume, Before They Are Hanged does display somewhat more originality on the macro level – everything here was in another book first, but perhaps not previously all in the same book… and in the same order.

 

Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD. Before They Are Hanged is a noticeable improvement over The Blade Itself, largely on account of its broader scope and more confident technique – no surprise for a second novel. That improvement takes it to the level of… OK-ness. It’s the level that a lot of fantasy novels, even very popular ones, reside at. If you like this sort of thing, it’s an OK example of this sort of thing. If you don’t normally like this sort of thing, there’s nothing here to change your mind. The series continues to be a decent entry-level outing into fantasy for the young.

In the moment, it feels a little like a wasted opportunity – after all, I rated Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice and Martin’s A Game of Thrones as merely ‘not bad’ too, just like The Blade Itself, but those series quickly took greater steps toward improvement, and to me Before They Are Hanged just feels like more of the same but a little better written than last time. Then again, I must admit that taste is an issue here: if I hadn’t gelled with Fitz early on, perhaps I wouldn’t have read on long enough to see Hobb’s novels get great. And let’s re-iterate here that ‘not bad’… isn’t bad. Particularly for genre work. This novel is no worse than a lot of other popular but ultimately mediocre fantasy novels. [although personally, if I wanted to read mediocre fantasy, I’d prefer to read one that was at least likeable…]

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**Ironically, reality is more badass than fantasy: the reason Tyre had its famous causeway was that when Alexander found he could not conquer the city, which at that time was an island, he decided it would no longer be an island, and so had his soldiers construct the causeway into the Mediterranean (while under constant missile attack), which still stands today. If the sea gets in the way of Alexander, Alexander moves the sea. However, even then it was impossible to subdue Tyre. He eventually won only when he and his allies had assembled a fleet of over 200 ships. Cranes mounted on his ships help move away the rocks around the sea walls, and his ships then battered the walls with rams until they forced a breach; an all-out assault eventually forced troops through the breach, at which point the battle turned into a massacre – there had only been around 6,000 troops defending the city (for over seven months). Storming a defensible city is in real life very, very, hard.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin’s two most famous and acclaimed science fiction novels – 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness and 1974’s The Dispossessed have a great deal in common. Both are intellectual novels, more interested in characters dispensing sociology lectures than in character exchanging gunfire; both are novels where, in the final equation, very little actually happens. Both are primarily concerned with comparing and contrasting two very different sociopolitical power structures, locked in a Cold War – given the time in which the novels were written, we can cut to the chase and just admit, both novels are fundamentally examinations of the USA vs. the USSR. On a purely superficial level, both novels are set on distant planets occupied by a species who are almost, but not quite, human, with both Terrans (us!) and ‘Hainish’ mentioned in the background. Both novels follow a single traveller as he attempts to understand the world around him.

And yet there are also important differences: most importantly of all, where The Left Hand of Darkness seems to tiptoe delicately, frostily, across an icy surface, everything at a distance, everything filtered and contained, The Dispossessed is the literary equivalent of taking an axe to a target and hacking, first from the left, and then from the right, again and again until the blade hits the quick.

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In theory, The Dispossessed is the story of an anarchist physicist, Shevek, who leaves his anarchist homeworld, the barren moon of Anarres, to take his knowledge to the capitalist planet of Urras. However, the book is really built upon its narrative structure: Shevek’s departure from Anarres occures in the first chapter, and from that point on odd-numbered chapters detail his following weeks and months on Urras, while even-numbered chapters flash back to detail the whole of Shevek’s life on Anarres, culminating in his departure to Urras at the end (/beginning) of the novel. Most authors would use this bold structural device to bring complexity and irony to the story of Shevek: they would cut from future to past to bring tragedy or comedy, or they would explore the ways that the Shevek of the past is different from the Shevek of the future. There are elements of that here, it’s true, but surprisingly little: for the most part, we get the same Shevek throughout, although of course what he knows, and some of what he thinks about that, do change. Instead, Le Guin’s real interest in this structure appears to be in juxtaposing the two worlds*.

*it’s interesting that where most authors are desparate to build compelling narratives, Le Guin seems to try to avoid them. Just as in The Left Hand of Darkness the story of Genly was broken into shards by the insertion of intervening chapters from other characters or from folklore, so too here the twin stories of past and future Shevek are cut apart by being interwoven in this way, causing each chapter to stand in isolation. Each chapter is dense and intense, and some illusory relief is provided by each switch in scenery – only for the next chapter to be just as intense. The effect is, as I say, one of powerful axe blows coming at the reader from one side after the other…

In TLHOD, Le Guin gave us a (very, VERY) Cold War defined through politics. On the one side, the West was stripped back to its feudal past, a society of both baffling traditions and apparent chaos, of an apparent inquality undercut by fluidity; on the other, the East was given to us without the specific trappings of communism, but reduced to a recognisable prototype of rigid rationality, of committees of safety, labour camps, modernisation, community dining halls and secret police, in which an apparent equality is undercut by stagnation – a political system recognisable from Rousseau to Xi, via Robespierre and Lenin.

In The Dispossessed, on the other hand, Le Guin returns to that basic conflict, but this time focuses on economics. Yes, Anarres is anarchist, and Urras’ governments are on the blackshirty side (literally!), but the real focus of the comparisons is between the Anarres system of mutual aid, and the Urras system of free-market capitalism, and the broader cultural differences that flow from that. The two sides of the novel therefore explore the flaws of, on the one hand, utopian communalism, and, on the other, modern America.

The former is certainly the more original. Anarres is maybe the most developed anarchist society outside of utopian literature, and Le Guin is careful to walk a balance, presenting a world that is in some ways horrifying, tragic, insidiously soul-destroying, and yet at the same time more or less believable as a functioning society in which most people are mostly happy – a society that, indeed, seems relatively attractive compared to the nightmares of the other half.

Because if the idea of attacking modern American culture seems less imaginative – and it is! – it’s also the more powerful side of the novel. Le Guin is savage and extensive in her satire of late-stage capitalism, casting her poison pen in every direction from art galleries to universities to international affairs, domestic economic politics, conversational norms, and of course (again in common with The Left Hand of Darkness) gender roles (not to mention packaging methods and bathroom sink design). Gender is the one area in which the society of Urras seems positively backward compared even to the middle of the 20th century: women are almost entirely excluded from science and economics, to an extent that even Victorians would have been proud of. At first, it seems like a misstep – a crass exaggeration that through overreaching lets her enemies off the hook – but as the novel progresses it seems like a cunning strategic move: it allows her to explore the role of women in capitalism by working on, as it were, a magnified canvass that lets the details show through. Again, she attempts to find balance: Shevek sees the women of Urras as horrifically oppressed, while they see themselves as possessing power and prestige, and it’s not entirely clear that either side is wrong; likewise, we’re given the wonderful expression that Anarres women have for their Urras sisters and the ways they maintain their power – “body-profiteers” – but it’s left ambiguous whether we should really see these women (and by extension many real women) as shameful and manipulative body-profiteers or as desparate prisoners trying to secure at least the illusion of agency – or, of course, whether they are both. [the bothness of things is quite a recurrent theme, I think…]

[by contrast, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, there is almost no consideration of race explicitly, although there are clearly post-colonial power disparities being criticised]

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It’s powerful stuff – by making her protagonist literally a man from the moon, Le Guin is able to cast a clear and uncomfortable light on things we take for granted in our society (I’m reminded of the old fad for “Martian” poetry…). At the same time, she is also interested not only in the nature of society, but also in the place of the individual within society, and within the universe. There is more mysticism here, this time disguised as physics – and as a philosophy graduate I can only exhale with deep relief at finally finding a science fiction writer who launches into pages of philosophical verbiage that actually makes sense and is philosophically interesting. Oh, nothing here is actually totally new, but Le Guin seems to understand the interesting questions she is raising about consciousness and time, as well as about identity and ethics, and to express herself in an engaging and vivid way. Most of this is concentrated in the Anarres sections – it should be no surprise that in the cities of Urras, Shevek is alone, yet looks outward, while on depopulated Anarres he is among friends, yet looks inward – and coupled with lyrical romantic and maudlin melancholic material, and some intimations of tragedy, this makes the Anarres half of the novel every bit as intense as the Urras sections.

Intense is the word. Every chapter could pretty much stand alone as a powerful short story – they add together, but each is slightly different in its emphasis and paints a complete, if not independent, picture. Within each chapter, there is little relief: Le Guin’s prose is constantly precise and densely packed, filled with invention and insight; at times, it’s almost poetry in how much is wrapped into each word, in how considered each word appears. Many paragraphs stand out as little prose poems in their own right. And that formal density is mirrored by the extreme density in content – there is almost no moment that is not layered with symbolism and import, and no moment that does not independently add to the whole.

It’s very impressive. And yet that very intensity can be a liability. Sometimes it felt like I needed an axe myself to make progress in this book. It was a rewarding experience, but not an easy one: I kept wanting to stop to think, or to jot down a quote (so much of it is quotable!), and at the end of a chapter it felt like lifting up a stone tablet trying to start the next. It’s the kind of novel that, in perfect circumstances, you could smash through with a glass of red wine in one evening – or that, in other circumstances, could take months to chip your way through. In my case, it was the latter, and while that was mostly my fault (or the fault of my circumstances) it’s certainly true that the novel was not a page-turner. Not something to keep you up late at night. If this were a TV show, it wouldn’t be something that lent itself to binging – it would be something heavy and unremitting and best digested an episode or two at a time. [specifically, I guess it would probably be The Americans… with less killing and more ideology lectures]

Underlying this lack of compelling forward motion is a sad lack of plot. I understand entirely the desire of Le Guin and of some other authors of her era to concentrate less on plot and more on their ideas. By doing so – by not subjugating her narrative to the simplistic demands of ‘plot’ – Le Guin is able to build a more consistently intense and much more intellectually interesting story. And yet… something is also lost. Now to be sure, The Dispossessed is neither incoherent nor exactly rambling – it does have a definite direction of travel and, as a result, a general narrative arc that makes sense and is broadly satisfying. It does all that is strictly required, and is not, in this regard, a failure (indeed, that absence of failure elevates the novel over some attempts in a similarly ruminatory vein). But the lack of a more substantial plot hamstrings the book by undermining its ability to engage the reader’s passions – there is nothing dragging us from chapter (or even scene) to the next, and there is little to energise the reader with a sense of success, or to spark the fear of coming failure. It makes for a strange tone for the book: passion, but at a distance. Opinions may vary, but I felt that this was more of a problem than in TLHOD, because the earlier book’s coldness helped develop a creeping tension, whereas the comparative fireyness and intensity of The Dispossessed only highlights the lack of the driving force of plot that would be expected. And in the end, that lack of plot reduces the impact of the novel, which doesn’t so much reach completion as simply reach its allotted wordcount before tacking on what might pass for an ending. Oh, to be sure, the ending fits. It’s just… there’s no particular reason why the novel couldn’t have been twice as long before reaching that ending. Or half as long, for that matter. As with TLHOD, some vestige of resolution is created by the insertion of an artificial threat, and brief excitement, near the end – but where TLHOD’s concessions to plot start a long distance from the end, giving us an entire final section of real story, The Dispossessed tries to insert its actual plot into about a chapter. It’s a good chapter – these are all, to be clear, really good chapters – but it’s not enough to underpin the whole novel.

And yet…

Sure, it may not really cohere as a novel. Sure, it’s not a page-turner (at least, not from beginning to end). It reads more as a series of intense but rather impersonal short stories on shared themes than as an actual novel in the traditional sense. But does that matter?

OK, yes, it does. But it also shouldn’t be everything. Let’s put it this way: the fact it doesn’t cohere into an entirely fluent and satisfying novel stops this from being an absolute all-time great literary classic. But that’s praising with faint damnation. Because it doesn’t stop it from being a classic of the genre, and a stunningly good book.

Maybe this isn’t a novel for everybody. It’s not ‘easy’, or ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’. But it is a novel for anyone looking for good writing; it is a novel for anyone looking for thought-provoking, critical thinking, both social and philosophical. It is a novel for anyone looking for something weird and powerful and immersive.

And above all, it is a novel for anyone who wants to see just what can be accomplished in speculative fiction. That an author could take such a bold structure, and fill it with such unforgivingly adult and serious thinking, leavened with the bare minimum of plot and spiced with a mild but indelible sense of tragedy, and produce a novel even remotely readable is in its own right astonishing. That it could be done with sumptuous prose, and that the novel that resulted could be a beloved – if niche – cult classic that may demand, yet certainly repays, as much effort as the reader can dedicate to it, is almost a miracle. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed a watered-down version more, but for the good of the genre it’s great that the concentrated form exists, if only for future reference…

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Adrenaline: 2/5. The structure of the novel makes it hard to build adrenaline – but the big problem is just that most chapters aren’t that interested in either action or anticipation.

Emotion: 3/5. Le Guin hits some very emotional points here, particularly in the more intimate chapters on Anarres. On the other hand, much of the book is written at arm’s length, so on average it’s hardly a heart-wrencher.

Thought: 5/5. As I tend to say with this score, The Dispossessed isn’t exactly a masterpiece of philosophy – it’s arguments are relatively shallow and at times perhaps muddied or unclear – but it’s as thought-provoking as anyone could seriously expect a novel to be. You can’t take it much further before you cross the line from ‘think-y novel’ into outright ‘thought experiment with narrative ornaments’. And to its credit it takes in a range of (albeit linked) subjects, making it feel a more rounded novel, intellectually, than The Left Hand of Darkness.

Beauty: 5/5. If I’m nitpicking, I find Le Guin’s style a little too fussy to be truly stunning. But I can’t deny, she gets some fabulous lines in along the way – and some fabulous images, and a suitably elegaic (yet paradoxically hopeful) tone.

Craft: 5/5. I’ve pointed out some flaws in this review, but I can’t really claim that they’re inadequacies of craft – more just errors in judgement. I think she basically did what she set out to do, even if sometimes I wanted her to do something else. The prose may be a tad overdone, taken as a whole, but line-by-line it’s very good; in addition to sounding nice, she conveys nuanced characters and complex thoughts concisely, which is the hard-to-explain but absolutely essential quality of great writing. She adopts a strange and difficult structure and uses it in a very accomplished manner – if not quite how you might expect. She achieves an extreme concentration of thought in a surprisingly slight wordcount. She… well, she displays an absolute mastery of writing.

Endearingness: 4/5. There are very likable aspects of this novel (for one thing, it’s ridiculously quotable). I basically enjoyed reading it, and came out with positive feelings toward it. I hope others enjoy it too, and I’ll think kindly of it in future. And yet… it’s not exactly a curl-up classic. It’s prickly and dense and not entirely rewarding at the end – it’s hardly a feel-good favourite, or even an addictive tragedy. It’s a book I really like, but not one I think I can love.

Originality: 4/5. There are aspects that this novel has in common with others of its era (as suggested at the beginning of this review!). Many aspects of her criticism of late capitalist statism are far from innovative. But the pairing of sociopolitical criticism with phyical-philosophical mysticism and intimate psychology make this an unmistakable, specific, novel – not to mention the serious consideration of the pros and cons of the implementation of utopian anarchosyndicalism, which is lacking from most genre pieces…

 

OVERALL: 7/7. BRILLIANT. Perhaps it would be fair to say that The Dispossessed was not, in its own terms, quite as successful as The Left Hand of Darkness; but that, as it attempts more, it achieves more in overall terms. Nearly half a century after its publication, The Dispossessed remains that rare thing in science fiction: a novel that seems genuinely relevant to our times. Other than the increased status of women, our vices have taken us even closer to Urras over the years, while Anarres remains in practice out of reach, yet in concept still credible. Whether you’re looking for the politics, or for the philosophy, or for the psychological portraits, The Dispossessed was and still is a deeply rewarding novel – an absolute classic of the genre. Just so long as you weren’t looking for a plot-based adventure novel…

 

I, Maybot; by John Crace

I didn’t buy this book; someone gave it to me. Not particularly because they thought I’d enjoy it all that much, but just because… well, it was there, and I’d probably get a chuckle out of it, so why not?

That’s probably an appropriate way to think about the book, as it turns out.

I, Maybot is my first sustained encounter in quite a while with that venerable if obscure genre, the parliamentary sketch (an artform practiced continually since the 18th century). Normally, the genre is delivered in small morsels in the more highbrow national newspapers: a witty, topical dissection of the absurdities of political events. And when you put it like that, I always wonder why I don’t actually read them (even on those occasions when I happen to have a newspaper to hand). After all, I am, in a minor way, a political junkie – I have a degree in the damn subject, for heaven’s sake! – and while the days when my attention was religiously affixed to Newsnight for an hour each evening even on slow days are long past, I’m still a fairly regular follower of affairs. As for satire, and the highbrow tradition of British comedy, that’s an even more essential part of my being. I was pretty much raised on that stuff. And the intersection of biting comedy with topical affairs? Dude, my childhood was endless re-watches of Have I Got News for You, Drop the Dead Donkey and Yes (Prime) Minister – I’d happily sit watching old VHS tapes of HIGNFY sardonically dissecting the minutiae of political events from five years before. Political sketches ought to be my daily pick-me-up.

But they’re not, and I, Maybot is, unfortunately, a good demonstration of why. The political sketch, you see, is political comedy not written by a comedian, nor in most cases by a politician, but by a journalist. There is no actual requirement for them to have more than the most rudimentary sense of humour, and it’s not really requisite for them to have much understanding of political affairs either, so long as they can name the major players. In this case, the author, John Crace, is otherwise notable for his two books on the recent history of Tottenham Hotspurs F.C., and his volume on late-1980s Pakistani reverse swing pace bowling – an estimable work no doubt, but perhaps not an obvious harbinger of a career in political satire.

Essentially, the format of a Crace sketch is that he repeats what a politician did, while making some snarky comments and calling people names. Usually, he calls some some version of ‘dim’, ‘dumb’, or ‘dull’.* To make things more interesting, he also invents things that didn’t happen, and mixes them in with the real things when the real things aren’t sufficiently interesting.

I find this problematic. Much of the humour of absurdity, after all, is the fact that the absurd thing happened, or that the absurd thing was said; when you’re not sure whether the writer’s just making it up, it diminishes the fun considerably. Much of this could be avoided if the author were able to convey the levels of reality more accurately, either through defter writing, or through more disciplined writing – keeping direct quotes accurate, for instance, while allowing indirect quotes to contain exaggerations. Crace doesn’t really do this – the rule just seems to be, so far as I can tell, that he tells us what happened if it was funny enough, and if it wasn’t then he just makes something funnier up and says it happened.

*traditionally, the parliamentary sketch was allegorical. It was illegal to report on the actual events of Parliament, so the sketch developed as a way to convey news while avoiding prosecution. Sketch writers would refer to politicians in code, through caricatures, and would often translate events and debates into symbolic, hyperbolic form. It’s a tradition carried on in, for example, the style of Private Eye, a publication faithful to both the conventions and spirit of traditional satire. In parliamentary sketches themselves, however, the end of legal prohibitions have made the writer’s job much easier: they can now mix reality and fiction as freely as they choose. And where sketch writers would once have crafted cunning caricatures to identify politicians to their readers without naming them, Crace just names them, and then goes on to call them “Dim” throughout the sketch. Calling May “Maybot” is actually as imaginative as he gets (other than the slightly clever “Lurch” for Hammond, which needless to say isn’t Crace’s own, but is actually a nickname for the man in Westminster).

Which might be more defensible if his writing were… you know, actually funny. This is NOT Yes Minister. It is NOT Drop the Dead Donkey. Only at its best moments does it even rise to the level of Angus Deayton rising an eyebrow while repeating something sarcastically. Crace gets in a few good lines, of course – how could he not, given the length and the material? – but by and large he flounders around with little grasp of what he’s meant to be doing, in a comedic sense. When in doubt, he relies on repetitive playground insults. Everyone is very stupid, and dishonest. Which, obviously, in this case, is completely true – but isn’t exactly surgical-quality wit.

Nor is there a great deal of insight. The book is sold, for example, on the idea of the “Maybot” – the notion that Theresa May is sort of robotic – but Crace arrives at this almost by accident. He calls everybody else a “bot” of some sort as well, and it takes him a long time to zero in on this interpretation of May specifically. Indeed, it’s almost not until the very end that it overtakes the equally witty “Kim Jong May” and “Supreme Leader” as his default attack. It’s worth pointing out also that while he may have popularised the term in the broadsheets, Twitter was calling her a malfunctioning robot long before he came to the party.

This failure to find a working caricature of May and make it stick is part of a more general lack of focus and narrative in the book. This is a collection of Crace’s sketches over the course of the year, strung together sequentially, with added interstitial material – the interstitial stuff, incidentally, is sometimes longer than the sketches it links together, and serves chiefly as a way for Crace now to cheat, providing a hindsight-informed frame that diverts attention from how little idea Crace then had of what was happening or what was going to happen. But because half the book is just written in the heat of the moment, and because in that moment the author lacked any particular foresight (or indeed insight) the result is a stream of events upon which he has been unable to impose any compelling narrative. Indeed, the strongest attempt at a narrative here comes in the subtitle: The Rise and Fall; suggesting that this is the story of the rise and fall of Theresa May. But of course it isn’t. It begins with the Referendum, so only the final step of May’s rise squeaks in, in condensed form (many events are badly served here by the medium of the weekly episode, which makes many dramatic sequences into dead summaries after the fact); and it ends with the formation of the new government after the election, which means that it does not cover her entire fall – partly because, of course, she has not fallen. She’s still the Prime Minister! I guess “The Last Phase of Her Rise and A Sort of Partial Decline In Credibility” wasn’t as catchy. The greatest weakness of the book, however, is the lack of reflection – because each sketch is up-to-the-minute and forward-looking, there’s very little looking back at the absurd events that occur, which means the reader is deprived of that most essential part of a narrative: payoff. Or, more specifically, gloating.

In place of narrative, Crace substitutes cynicism – or tries to. It’s unappealing, and it undermines his points. Because yes, various ludicrous and terrible things happened in the course of that year – but because Crace sets his dial to the same cynical level throughout, no matter what the topic, there’s a strong sense of the boy crying wolf about both his outrage and his satire. To excite responses to the worst things, you need to have some sense of proportion about the bits in between – but when, say, the dementia tax debacle, or the naming and shaming of the judiciary as “enemies of the people”** is treated in the same tone as a random David Davis committee briefing, it’s hard to remember to get riled up. In particular, while even-handedness is to be applauded, Crace seems less ‘fair’ than ‘torn’, his professional obligation to satirise the Government at odds with his personal vitriol toward Labour and Corbyn. We’re left with constant criticism of “dumb” and “stupid” and “dim” ideas floated by both parties, but no sense whatsoever of what Crace might consider to NOT be dim – other than Remain and, in one rather tonally jarring passage, opposition to Islamic terrorism.***

**I’m not in general a huge fan of JK Rowling, but she did get in an excellent response to the tabloid hatemongering: when the worst a tabloid can say about you, she noted, is that you’re an “openly gay ex-Olympic fencer” top judge, you’ve basically won at life. [I’m only surprised, given the Mail’s history, that they didn’t point out that he was Jewish, too. However, it’s a slightly inaccurate headline: Sir Terence was invited to the Olympics, but declined to attend, in order to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. He is, however, openly gay, and indeed Britain’s first openly gay appeals judge; he’s now the secondmost-senior judge in the country.]

***we can all agree that terrorism is bad, murdered children are a bad thing, and we should all not be in favour of that. But inserting some pious flag-waving and Prime-Minister-praising in the interstitial material between sketches that show no signs of caring about the attacks reads less like passion and more like retrospective arse-covering.

And yet sadly, we don’t even get a payoff in the form of real, acidic, spitting vitriol. Crace resolutely turns the volume up to 5 throughout: his attacks are blunt, generic, and inoffensive. This isn’t The Thick of It either.

So, you might be thinking: what’s the point? If it’s not vicious, or witty, or insightful, and fails to construct a compelling narrative… why does this book even exist!? Why would anybody read it?

It’s a good question. My inner critic can’t stop asking it. And yet, in some ways thankfully and in others frustratingly, the author is bailed out here by the sheer absurdity of reality.

The fact is, you see, that Crace is talking about a period of utter lunacy: the catastrope of the Referendum; the farce of the respective party leadership elections; the idiocies and bare-faced lies of May’s struggle to articulate any plan or message on Brexit; and then the worst political campaign in at least the last 140 years of British history. The events literally mock themselves.

This is, let’s remember, an election campaign when:

  • the Prime Minister absolutely promised not to call an early election because it would not be in the national interest, and then called an early election a couple of weeks later;
  • the ruling party produced a manifesto specifically promising to be cruel to starving children and people with dementia. Yes, they thought slashing pensions, ending free school meals for the poor and imposing a new tax on dementia would be a vote-winning offer;
  • the party then had to immediately promise not to implement its manifesto within days of the manifesto having been published, when they realised how unpopular it was, with the result that they basically went into the election with no actual policies (“the first time in modern history that a party’s actually broken a manifesto promise before the election”, as an interviewer said);
  • the party refused to campaign in marginal seats until the very end, instead campaigning only in secure opposition seats that they had no way of ever capturing;
  • the party made the entire campaign about their Leader, commanding all other party politicians to go into hiding when not specifically ordered to appear. Seriously, at one stage the TV companies were literally chasing Tories around the countryside because they’d been instructed to avoid being seen by cameras;
  • this despite the fact that the Leader had zero charisma and an inability to deal with any unexpected surprises or events;
  • the Leader campaigned only in sealed environments, and only in front of small numbers of vetted committed supporters and a couple of vetted cameras. LOTS of photoshoots of her standing alone in empty industrial sheds with literally a dozen party workers around her and nobody else. All politicians of course like ‘safe’ photoshoots. But everyone mixes them up with the odd speech to a large crowd, or shaking hands in the street, or talking to schoolchildren or public sector workers; but May? Just empty sheds and party officials. Because the North Korean leadership style conveys humanity so well…
  • the Leader actually refused to attend the TV debate, sending a deputy instead, to debate the leaders of the other parties, because she was too scared of being asked unvetted questions. When asked what qualities a good leader had, the other parties all duly began by mentioning that having the courage to face the public was a prerequisite…
  • because it was The 2017 Campaign, so unique in its awfulness, the Leader specifically conveyed her humanity at the TV debate by forcing a deputy whose father had just died to take the flack instead of her;
  • at no point did the party have any actual campaign strategy beyond chanting “strong and stable” ten times in every interview;
  • the Leader was completely unable to answer any question from anyone. All politicians evade, but May’s interviews were perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in that regard. Consider, for instance, <a href=“https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/05/andrew-neil-interviews-theresa-may-full-transcript/”>this interview</a>, where she completely failed to answer a single question. Highlights include being asked if it was possible she might raise National Insurance contributions and answering “Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations”, and being asked “On those two big issues you failed to meet your promises – why would we trust the Tories on anything else?” and answering “well, as I say, the election will be about trust.” That’s not just one terrible interview – it was like that for multiple interviews every day. One day, someone asked her “Is the reason you’re doing so badly that whenever people ask you about policy, all we get are clichés and platitudes?” and she, no kidding here, answered “Well first of all, Michael, what we have published is a manifesto that addresses the big challenges that this country faces, not just over the next five years, but beyond. And we have set out, clearly, some of the hard choices that need to be made and how we will address those challenges.” A six week campaign and she barely answered any question. The Sunday Times gave her some easy, personal questions. Does she prefer Chinese or Indian food? “I don’t buy takeaways.” OK, what does she prefer to drink – wine or whisky? “Depends on the circumstances.” Right, OK, how about TV – Sherlock and Midsummer Murders are two very different detective shows, but both popular: which does she personally prefer? “I have watched both.” Not even “I liked both”, which would be dangerously close to an answer, albeit an unsatisfying one. No, just “I’ve watched both.” It makes that time when Gordon Brown felt forced to lie about his favourite types of biscuits look straightforward;
  • oh, I tell a lie, she did give one answer, and it wasn’t even to a question she was asked. The Prime Minister made clear that in life she felt there were “boy jobs and girl jobs” and it was important not to mix them;
  • she also gave a 100% honest and open answer to the worst thing she had ever done in her life: she once, as a child, ran through a field. Yes, that’s what she was really thinking. That’s an answer a human would give. You see why this book is called “I, Maybot” now?
  • so anyway, as a result of all the above, the Prime Minister voluntary called an early election when she was leading the polls by more than a twenty point margin, and six weeks later she managed to lose her majority. I’d ask how that was mathematically possible, except that I saw the campaign and it all makes sense.
  • she then lied to the Queen about having formed a coalition, and announced a package of new proposals for the coming year that could feature nothing more exciting than proposals to explore regulation in the space tourism industry…
  • she then bribed a party of anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights fundamentalists with £1.5 billion (that she had just said she didn’t have) in order to maintain her own power.

And remarkably, with her astonishingly awful response to the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower fire a week later, things just kept getting worse.

Given that context, inevitably this book is going to make you laugh, and grind your teeth in anger. And it should be given credit for that. What it does is essentially lead the reader down (recent) memory lane – “hey, remember when…”, “oh, wasn’t it funny when…”, “seriously, can you believe that…” and so on. It doesn’t do too bad a job of it – it glosses over too many good bits, and lingers on too many boring bits – but it more or less hits the highlights. In that sense, it serves a function adequately.

It is, sadly, less funny than, say, reading random twitter comments on these events would be. And he’d have done better taking the time to restructure his ‘sketches’ into a coherent narrative, adding and subtracting where necessary, rather than just throwing out a stitched-together log of his newspaper work (it’s not as though this is precious historical record that needs to be defended). But unlike random twitter comments, these pages are all available in easy chronological order in the same place, in print form, so it wins points for that.

In the end, do I regret reading the book? No. It’s very short, and its otherwise-frustrating bitesize approach and superficial style does at least make it an easy book to pick up here and there – I got through it through such schemes as ‘reading a couple of pages with breakfast’ and ‘reading an article or two while I was waiting for the washing machine to finish because it’ll be any time now and there’s no point going away and coming back’. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a generally adequate, mildly amusing history lesson. There’s worse things that that.

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

Almost at the end of my Complete Discworld Re-Read Project

There’s an inevitable though morbid game that Pratchett fans are playing somewhere in the back of their heads, willingly or unwillingly, when they read his later novels: we can’t but wonder, “how much of the decline is due to the Alzheimer’s?”

Well, within just a page or two of I Shall Wear Midnight, the answer seemed clear to me: whatever perhaps went wrong in Making Money, and certainly went wrong in Unseen Academicals, and was arguably about to go wrong in Snuff, it wasn’t a problem with Pterry’s brain.

The tiredness of those novels, the bluntness of the wit, the familiarity – that’s not here. Here, Pterry is sharp, energised, eager to take on more complex themes. Funny. Reading this, it’s immediately clear that Pratchett, at least in 2010, could still do it when he felt inspired. Indeed, I’d tentatively suggest that, on a technical level, this is better-written than the previous three Tiffany novels, which were themselves well-written. In his ingenuity, his acuity, his observational humour, Pratchett here is as good as ever. Pratchett could still write.

My problems, unfortunately, are with what he could write…

Continue reading

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.

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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