The Quiet Don, by Mikhail Sholokhov (sort of)

A housekeeping digression:

I don’t generally review novels I’ve not finished – for one thing, doing so would be a confession that I’d not just indefinitely paused, but actually given up, reading the book. So I don’t know if I “should” be writing a review now. According to Goodreads, and to common sense and history, I have not actually completed a novel. All I have done is read about half of The Quiet Don.

However, it’s fair to say that there are some confounding factors here. For one, The Quiet Don was published in stages over the course of around a decade and a half. For another, (a somewhat abridged version of) the first half of the novel was published in English as And Quiet Flows the Don, six years before the novel was even completed – and I have a copy of that ‘novel’, that is a ‘novel’ in English translation but not in the Russian original. Since then, in addition to the second half of the novel being published (or the sequel, if you prefer), it’s also been published in sets of three, four, five or more volumes. And finally: the complete novel (or series, if you prefer), is gigantic. And I’m not going to get to the second half for a while. So, although I was reading a complete edition of the entire novel, I’m going to pretend that – like the first generation to read this in English – I’ve finished reading the first installment of a duology.

Further note: consider yourselves warned, this is a STUPIDLY long review, even by my circumlocutious standards…

It’s been a while since I read a proper epic fantasy novel. I must confess, I didn’t realise I’d be reading one now. And yet, just look at what we have here! Mikhail Sholokhov’s seminal The Quiet Don (or even just the first half, as reviewed here) is a colossal, hand-breaking tome, perhaps the heaviest book I’ve read – it may be only 1,400 pages, but they’re big pages (this edition is a full-size ‘trade paperback’ – a hardback minus the hard back). It begins, as every good fantasy novel does, with a map – a series of maps, even. There’s a dramatis personae at the beginning to refer back to (complete with pronunciation assistance), and at the back there are some hefty appendices. The content, likewise, is conventional for the (fantasy) genre: a simple farm boy discovers himself to be a leader of men, and plays an outsize role in world events, at a time of love, death, brutality, apocalyptic war, and the fall of empires. It’s grim, and it’s dark. Events are interspersed with long discussions of morality and political systems, and there’s a fair amount of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding, particularly in depicting exotic cultural traditions; and then there are the subtler touches that mark out traditional fantasy – the random cultural terms left untranslated (distances are measured in verst, for instance (it’s equivalent to 500 sazhen, if that helps)), and the scattering of culturally-relevant songs and poems. It is, in effect, the archetypal epic fantasy.

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The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings is an innovative epic fantasy debut novel of 2015; and it’s hard for me not to pair it with another innovative epic fantasy debut novel, 2008’s A Shadow in Summer. Not because they’re similar, but because they almost completely aren’t.

Both Ken Liu in ‘15 and Daniel Abraham in ’08 burst into the genre (long-form – Liu was an established short story writer) with a distinctive take, each, as it were, pointing in new directions for fantasy. What the two novels have in common is that both seek to take fantasy out of its fauxdiaeval bubble by introducing notes and colours drawn from Asia rather than from Europe: Abraham invoking in a relatively enciphered way southeast Asia, and Liu drawing more transparently from China. Both, in addition, take unusual, and in some ways directly opposite, approaches to narrative. Both novels are, in their own way, creative success stories – certainly, enough to provide inspiration and encouragement to others who wish to explore new dimensions in fantasy. Yet both, in their own ways, have issues.

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The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Warning: this turned out to be a very long review, and much of it is more me wrestling with the genre than talking about the specific book. I really ought to edit it severely (I mean, even more severely than I ought to edit most of my reviews…), but I’ve been waiting to get around to that for the last six months, so I’ve given up and I’ve decided just to publish the damn thing. So, sorry about that.

I’m not a very good reader, these days. I don’t read enough – I still enjoy reading, once I’m doing it, but when it comes to actually starting a book, there always seems to be some more immediately (if less fully) rewarding way to spend the time available. It’s more than that, though: not only do I not read enough at all, I also read too narrowly, being still fundamentally a genre reader. Regular readers of the blog – yes, all both of you – may have noticed me venturing out a little from the genre, and finding reward for it: several of the highest-rated books I’ve reviewed here have been, at least theoretically, outside the SF&F genre. And yet, that’s been a bit of an illusion – most of those novels have been drawn either from the classic novel tradition from which SF&F emerged and to which it owes a continuing debt (The Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t have any dragons in it, for example, but its period setting, abstract ethical ruminations and series of picturesque adventures make it probably a more comfortable read for a modern fantasy fan than for a modern ‘lit-fic’ reader), or else have been, as it were, closely genre-adjacent in themes or genre-sympathetic in sensibilties. The only complete genre-distant novel I can think of that I’ve reviewed here is The Rider, and that… well, it doesn’t really feel representative of, as it were, the ‘mainstream’ in modern English writing.

What I haven’t really read much of at all, and haven’t reviewed any of for this blog, is writing from what is rather odiously known as ‘literary fiction’ (a term both arrogant and facile) – which is to say, veristic writing about ordinary people in the real world, acting like ordinary people, albeit perhaps in some striking situation. The kind of fiction that we’re all told we need to write – real art.

The Wolf Border seems to tick the boxes. I’m not aware of it itself having won any major awards, but its author certainly appears to fit the profile: first degree in English, second degree in Creative Writing; teaches Creative Writing courses; awards; writer-in-residence; Royal Society of Literature; published poet; literary magazines; Granta list; Booker-shortlisted. The conventional resumé. I read it because I felt I needed to read something like this; because it was recommended to me by several people; and because some of its trappings appealed to me.

[However, the fact that this is the third novel with ‘Wolf’ in the title that I’ve reviewed in the last year is honestly a complete, and slightly embarrassing, coincidence…]

I don’t read a lot in this genre. I’m finding it hard, as a result, to separate out my feelings about this book itself, and my feelings about the genre it represents. My apologies in advance if I’m a little incoherent in trying to set out these two sets of thoughts at the same time…

I think I can say: I can understand why people like and recommend this book. And yet I am not left with any great craving to read more widely in the genre.

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Wolf in Shadow, by David Gemmell

 

I tried to push the events of the week from my mind. My mother was dying, I was waiting to be fired, and staff, who had joined my team in good faith, were facing redundancy. After the fifth large Armagnac I decided to continue work on the book. I knew I was drunk, and I also knew that the chances of writing anything worthwhile were prettty negligible. But forcing my mind into a fantasy world seemed infinitely more appealing than concentrating on the reality at hand.

That’s Gemmell’s own description of how he came to write Wolf in Shadow, from the foreword to my omnibus edition. Drunk and despairing in 1986, in a cheap and unfriendly seaside hotel that he describes, borrowing a line from Jack Dee, as “the kind of place where the Gideons leave a rope”, he tried to work on Wolf in Shadow, his contractually-obligated saga of a ruthless warlord rising to power among a nomadic horde (the prequel to his iconic 1984 fantasy Legend)… but he found his fingers with a mind of their own. He began writing a paragraph in which a mounted scout was to crest a hill, look down onto the plain, and marvelled at a vast army below… but instead, at the climactic moment of discovery, his fingers wrote out for him: There was no sign of Jerusalem.

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Wolf in the Fold, by Simon Green

I’ve not been doing well with reading, recently. Mired in a Soviet monolith of an epic, I’ve been trying to sneak in a few nostalgic comfort-reads and the like, but even that hasn’t been entirely successful (the penultimate Discworld novel, in particular, is easy to read, yet also disheartening). So I turned once more to Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher novels – I haven’t read this particular one before, but they’re the kind of thing you know is going to be unchallenging and mildly entertaining. I had a little while before I needed to sleep, this being a weekend, and so I thought I’d make a start on Wolf in the Fold.

Later, at an ungodly hour of the morning, I realised I’d accidentally read the entire novel in one sitting. True, it’s under 200 pages so it barely counts as a novel, but still – I haven’t done that in a while. Turns out, Wolf in the Fold is actually… well, kind of good.

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Raising Steam

This review is one of (presumably) the final parts of my complete Discworld re-read project.

And so, it has come to this.

When I first started this re-read project, people warned me: Raising Steam (one of a handful of Discworld books I had not yet read) is not very good. Throughout the project, I’ve been wondering: what does that mean? How bad is not good? Can it really be so much worse than, say, Unseen Academicals?

Yes. It can be, and it is.

I have always said: there’s no such thing as a bad Discworld novel. There are brilliant ones, good ones, and merely adequate ones. But none are ever outright bad.

I was wrong.

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Island of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

I was distracted from writing this review at the time I actually read the book, so this will be brief…

When I was young, some of my favourite books were by Enid Blyton. Oh sure, my favourite book was The Lord of the Rings. But aside from that, Enid Blyton was high on the list. I never read Noddy; I think I only ever read one Secret Seven. And most shockingly, I never read any Famous Five at all (though I did once have a very complicated sort of choose-your-own-adventure Famous Five kit with dice and special apparatus).

What I read, and what I adored, were her eight Adventure novels, starting with this, The Island of Adventure.

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The Universal Spider: the Life of Louis XI of France, by Philippe de Commynes (ed. Paul Murray Kendall)

At the end of my boyhood and at the age of being able to manage a horse, I was brought to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then called the Count of Charolais, who took me into his service. This was the year 1464.

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Legends: Eleven New Works by the Masters of Modern Fantasy; by Robert Silverberg (ed.) et al.

When Legends was published, in 1998, it seemed not only welcome, but necessary. The empire of literature, it goes without saying, has for at least a century been too broad for any one reader to know it all first-hand in one lifetime. Even in a single field, a single subgenre, it can be hard for a reader to really have a firm grasp of the state of the art (let alone the canon of classics). We all hear names, from time to time, of this writer or that, and make a mental note to catch-up… but how often do most of us follow through? It’s a perennial problem… but it may never have been a more pressing problem than in the epic fantasy genre of the late 1990s.

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Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

I had, until recently, never read Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t really know, therefore, what to expect: the witty, piercing Austen acclaimed by critics, or the comfortable fantasyland of bonnets and bridal attire trumpeted by many of its general readers.

It’s neither, really.

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