The Top Ten Books I’ve Reviewed On This Blog

I’ve been running this blog for – as of a few days ago – seven years now. Long time. Fair few books reviewed over that time (though nowhere near as many as I’d have liked). So, with the seven year mark gone by, and the weather being wet and cold and dreary, I thought it might be nice to draw up an updated countdown of the best books that I’ve reviewed over that time.

There is, however, a slight complication. In recent years, a lot of my reading has been two big re-read projects of the works of two of my favourite authors – Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett. This means that any brief list would be overrun by their works – in particular, I’ve reviewed around 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and a lot of them are very, very good. A list of Discworld novels with a couple of other things thrown in just doesn’t seem that useful.

So, a compromise: this is a list of the ten best books I’ve read in the last 6-7 years, but with only one book per author. Just for fun, I’ve also thrown in the opening paragraph or two of each novel.

So, here we go….

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Watership Down, by Richard Adams

CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
CHORUS: How so? ‘Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice.
CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.

  • Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, as quoted in Watership Down

I couldn’t find my copy of Watership Down, so I bought a new one. Mysteriously, it’s twice the size of my old one and it’s not in big print – we must all have had great eyes in the olden days. The point, though, is where I found this copy in the bookshop: on the shelves labelled “Ages 9-12”.

Well, when a book is marketed for 9-year-olds and begins with a quote about death and dripping blood, out of a Greek tragedy, it’s fair to say that we’re in odd territory; and it’s hard to know exactly how to evaluate it. Perhaps the distinction between books for children and books for adults has simply grown over the years: a book must be one thing or the other. Watership Down, however, is a kid’s book with Aeschylus quotations. It has genocide, bloodshed, people ripped apart, and women reabsorbing their own foetuses as a result of the depression induced in them by systematic rape and then singing songs about it. It’s a book that has a reputation for giving children lasting nightmares, for scarring them for life (and the film adaptation is still spoken of with awe and horror).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a book for children. The thing is, most children’s books today essentially set out to teach children to be… well, children. Doing children things, acting and feeling and speaking childishly. Watership Down comes from an older tradition – a tradition in which the purpose of a book for children is to teach children how to be adults.

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Reaction: Shardik

“How else but through a broken heart may the Lord Christ enter in?”
– Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

He who builds a barn knows that rats will come

[They] were free to go where they might… Free as flies, free as autumn leaves or as wind-borne ashes.

Richard Adams has written nearly twenty novels or short story collections; one of them, Watership Down, is the best-selling novel ever published by Penguin, and has been voted one of the fifty favourite books of the British public, as well as spawning endless adaptations, including a classic film that has received numerous accolades – one of the fifty greatest British films, one of the hundred greatest animations, one of the twenty greatest tearjerkers, and a Hugo Award, among others. The novel is one of the classics of fantasy – and when it was written it joined The Lord of the Rings and Jonathan Livingston Seagull as the only fantasy novels to make it to the mainstream bestseller lists, as the #2 best-selling fiction book of 1974.

Watership Down, however, was not the apex of the author’s career – indeed, it was only the first of those twenty-odd novels. Of the rest of them, little, if anything, is ever heard. An author arose out of nowhere, became an incredible publishing success, and since then has spent another thirty years writing his novels in almost complete obscurity.

If any other novel of his had an opportunity to gain its own fame, it was his second novel, Shardik, which surely must have gained some attention in its day – and yet, beyond a cameo in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, it seems to have faded entirely from public consciousness, even among fantasy devotees. It was thus with some sense of mystery that as a child I opened the two-decade-old and dusty tome, with its faded cover, found in a box of books and bric-a-brac gifted us by an old and eccentric family friend who seemed perpetually to use us as an escape valve for her unrelenting acquisition of useless and obscure items. One day, “would you like these ski boots? I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them.” (Well no, as you’ve never been skiing – why did you buy them?). Another – “would these be any use to you?” – three hundred of those little plastic clips for closing bags and a thousand post-it notes? Why, it’s what we’ve always wanted. And, one day, an old plastic suitcase stuffed with books on obscure diets, and Greek myths, and never-heard-of poets in English, French and German – and Shardik.

When I opened it, the smell of the paper grabbed me by the nostrils, and brought me into an entirely different sort of world from any I had known.  At the time, I read Pratchett, and Eddings, and Feist, and Dragonlance, and Gemmell – Shardik isn’t really like any of those, at all. It quickly became one of my two favourite books, although, attempt after attempt, I failed to finish the book, dissuaded by confusion, depression, and on occasion sheer moralistic hatred of the characters. In the end, I had the marvellous idea of beginning in the middle, and finally I made it to the end. Yet none of that struggle made me dislike the book, or disparage it – on the contrary, it gave the book a sort of mystic power in my mind. It was, and still is, the only fiction book ever to have defeated me (barring books where I have read the first chapter or two but not really got into it – for me, if I once get into a book, I get through it all).

Shardik is not Watership Down, either. It isn’t set in England, or even Europe – instead, it’s set in a minor, tropical nation of savannah and jungle, long ago lost to history. Its main protagonist is not an animal, but an illiterate peasant. It has an animal in it, yes, but it does not think like a human, but rather goes about like an animal, killing and destroying. Its characters are not heroes and villains, but universally flawed, yet almost always well-intentioned, humans. It does not tell an adventure story, but a story of religion, conquest, and slavery. It’s easy to imagine the readers of Watership Down being somewhat confused.

Shardik tells the story of a simple hunter, Kelderek, who one day encounters in the forests of his island a gigantic bear, driven from its home by a forest fire, which, he comes to believe, is an incarnation of Shardik, the ursine avatar of the Power of God. Once upon a time, his people mutter, they ruled over a vast empire, the empire of Bekla to the south, and dwelled in comfort and refinement, until Shardik was lost to them, and they were exiled to a small and muddy island, where they are ruled now by the paranoid and deformed High Baron, Bel-ka-Trazet, while revering still the shattered remnants of Shardik’s priesthood, led by the nameless priestess, the Tuginda, on the mystical neighbouring island of Quiso, performing still the same tasks and rituals even though they have no longer any focus. In this environment, faith and politics, and fear and ambition, devotion of many kinds, and the savagery of nature clash unstoppably to change the course of the lives of all the characters, and turn their eyes to the long-awaited, long-foretold return in glory to Bekla – an empire itself feeling the scars of a bloody civil war fought on the issue of slavery.

Above all, Shardik is a novel about religion – or, more accurately, faith, as the apparatus and ritual of religion is only tangentially touched upon. Instead, the focus is on the faith (or non-faith) of Kelderek, Bel-ka-Trazet, the Tuginda, Ta-Kominion (a young nobleman), and Rantzey and Melathys (two subordinate priestesses) – how it interacts with emotion and pragmatism, and how it addresses, and interprets, both bounty and hardship.

And here I have my first problem with the novel. The subject matter is worthwhile and appreciated – faith, I think, is a subject that fantasy is uniquely well-placed to address – and there is no doubt that it is handled extremely well, but it is also handled narrowly. There is very little in the way of respectable dissent from the Approved View the book hands down – Kelderek struggles against it, and argues well both for and against it in his own mind and with others, but there is no doubt about how the reader is meant to conclude. The problem is particularly severe as a result of the absence of the two most charismatic dissenters, Bel-ka-Trazet and Ta-Kominion, from the majority of, and the key parts of, the book. It is worthwhile, I think, comparing this novel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, another explicitly religious fantasy – in Leibowitz, it is far less clear what the Approved View is, and there is far stronger dissent from in within the book.

This may not have been so much of a problem for me, where I not to disapprove of the Approved View. Ill-mannered as it may be to introduce personal beliefs into the matter, nonetheless it is impossible to read a book, particularly so opinionated a book as this, in isolation from our pre-existing views. Now, those of you who have been paying attention will know that I have no religion, and no faith, and no believe in God – but both by upbringing and by inclination, the specific believe that I do not have is generally Catholic in form. Consequently, Leibowitz struck a chord within me – though I disagreed with much of it, it was something familiar, recognisable, respectable to me. But Shardik is not a Catholic book – Shardik is Protestant in the most arrational, and often agonisingly passive, way. Again and again we are told, in essence, that salvation is through faith alone and not through deeds; again and again, we are told how wrong it is to seek to deduce God’s will or plan how best to serve him – God’s will, is to be shown, not found: the question “then what are we to do?” is answered by “Kelderek, how many more times? It will be shown us, shown us, shown us what we are to do!” We must, we are told, simply wait. Well, I don’t believe that – and I also don’t believe that a doctrine of waiting quietly and of relying on God aids greatly in writing an exciting tale. Personally, I would have greatly preferred even a hint of theological nuance at this point – and it could easily be given. By the end of the book, there are in essence three significant religions – the established hierarchy of Quiso, Kelderek and new interpretations of the religion of Shardik, and the religion of U-Deparioth, held by another major character, the urbane Ellaroth – yet there is singularly little theological conflict. Neither Kelderek nor any other non-Quiso religious figure has a coherent theology to oppose that of the Tuginda, and the religion of U-Deparioth is not only virtually absent from most of the novel but also, when seen, is presented as more-or-less interchangeable with the religion of Shardik. The sequel, I am told, makes mention of a great many more religions in Bekla, but these do not feature at all. This, I feel, is a serious flaw in the novel, and not only because it allows the Tuginda to reign unchallenged in the theological sphere. It also damages both the theme and the plot of the novel: the theme, because on the one hand we are told of the enormous significance of religion in life, while all throughout the Empire religion is neither salient nor distinct; the plot, because a key symbolic episode, the Streels of Urtah, gains much of its power from the mythology of Deparioth, which is distant and unaffective. While it is clearly intentional to keep the reader in the dark about the details of the significance of the Streels, the eventual revelation would have considerably more power if the mythology had been more familiar to us at this point; additionally, the sudden religiosity of the Sarkids when the Streels feature would be more believable if it were not the first mention of their religion that we saw.

The resulting religious picture is therefore disappointingly bland. Why could not we have been given a serious, fleshed-out, henotheism or polytheism in Bekla? As it is, the most appealing religious dissent is the atheism, or at least extreme pragmatism, of Bel-ka-Trazet, who is portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic, even positive, manner, but who is sadly absent from the key sections of the novel. Indeed, I’m tempted to say that not only this novel, but all other novels, would benefit from having a good deal more Bel-ka-Trazet in them. Perhaps there is some sort of Boba Fett issue here, but to me he seemed the most charismatic character in the book.

The main religion, meanwhile, failed even to be convincing in its own right – not because of any shallowness on the part of the variety of religious experiences and attitudes displayed, but because the religion seem very much to be Protestant Christianity in a bear skin. This is most obviously seen in the fact that their supreme deity is called simply God, and Shardik is the ‘Power of God’ that has been incarnated to save and guide mankind, through its own sacrifice. And of course all the other religions also worship God, they just don’t worship Shardik or believe he has been sent by God. This is not animism, or shamanism, as we might imagine on hearing of ‘bear worship’ – this is a simple Abrahamic faith, albeit without codified scripture (and the concept of revelation is indeed central). This is not necessarily a problem – it seems natural that an Englishmen of the time would be most interested in Abrahamic religions, but it raises an important question: why has Adams disguised this as something other than it is? Why isn’t it written in a more explicit way – why no prophets, no messiahs, no scripture? Perhaps he sought simplicity – but religion is the core of the book, so ought to be least skimped on. Perhaps he was afraid of blasphemy, or accusations of it. Or perhaps it is accidental – maybe he lacked the knowledge or imagination to make a more truly un-Christian faith. Personally, I hope it is the latter reason – because there is no reason why this faith had to be Abrahamic at all. Indeed, with the focus on faith and interpretation, a less explicit religion, a more genuine animal-worship, would have thrown the fascinating duality of religious thought processes into starker and more penetrating light.

These omissions, however, are likely not made on religious grounds, but rather reflect a general deficiency in worldbuilding. The geography is often confused, both in physics (the vegetative zones, for instance, seem allocated by throwing darts at a map, from all I can see) and in description (I’m still not clear whether Sarkid is a city or a region, for instance, and whether it is adjacent to, or within, Lapan, nor where exactly Deelguy is, nor of the western border of the empire – and all this despite a map!). Culture and economics are vividly described, but seem hollow, and sometimes unbelievable – why, for instance, does Transvrako remain so underpopulated? Given that it is underpopulated, how can it remain in such abject poverty and lawlessness? As the greatest threat appears to be groups of no more than a handful of men, why are people unable to defend their villages, and why, as so much of the area is wild and empty, can people not simply scratch out a living in the wild places without fear of harassment? Let’s not even address the economics of the ending… and as I have said there is virtually no information about the practice of religion, while the magic that appears on Quiso in the early chapters is barely mentioned again.

Why does the worldbuilding matter? Imagine taking a long trip by car to a destination, following the instructions given by a friend. Even if you follow the instructions to the letter, doesn’t a small part of you like having the reassurance that if you wanted to you could take a sudden turn and trundle down the B-roads to cut across country? A poorly-constructed world is when you feel that if you were for even a moment to diverge from the allotted route, you would find that the roads all ended once you were out of sight of the motorway. Or again: we live in our books, if only for a little while, and in a book with thin worldbuilding we are constantly confronted with indescribable, individually insignificant but cumulatively disturbing, suggestions that we are living in the Truman Show. A fine enough effect where disturbance is what the author desires – but otherwise it’s a distracting inadequacy.

In society, likewise, all people are divisible into three categories – a handful of sensible people, a great many urbane, suave aristocrats, and an endless sea of vaguely-cockney working men. If it were a play, most of these characters would simply be replaced by a single faceless man who changes hats, like the servant in A Man for All Seasons.

This point itself raises two new issues. Firstly, the issue of dialect. People are often enjoined to write as people speak, not as philosophers write, and indeed there is great merit in this – but Shardik is a fine example of why it is not always a good idea. It was written in the seventies, but by a man then in his fifties, and sounds distinctly pre-war in its dialogue, with the lower-class characters speaking in the sort of My Fair Lady way that may have represented speech at the time but now seems painfully out of date and not a little patronising. Meanwhile, the aristocrats, and in particular Ellaroth, not only speak but act in the sort of unemotional, flippant, interchangeable stiff-upper-lip fashion that seems scarcely credible now – and Ellaroth suffers as a result, as the painfully-sketched contrast between mask and raw emotion beneath becomes less credible and understandable when the mask is so alien to us, and so clearly affected. Finally, the Deelguy we meet speak in a swap-the-vowels accent that is frankly too bizarre to be believed, and which is rather alienating.

The second and more interesting issue took a long time to occur to me, but now seems to explain a great deal. Shardik should not be understood as modern writing, nor as Victorian writing – it is Shakespearean. It is, in essence, a very long play in novel form. The key dialogue is theatrical, not realistic – full of high sentence, strangely well-considered and precise. Internal thoughts, likewise, are not rambling and disunified, but presented, more or less, as the sort of philosophical soliloquys we expect on the stage. Even the descriptions read as stage directions in their terser moments, and as Othellian anecdotes at their more expansive.

This should not be seen as a criticism. If we judge the writing of Shardik by how close it is to reality, we would judge it poorly – but we do not have to. Consider instead that these soliloquys are not a portrayal of actual psychology, but of a condensed, pureed thought process – how the character would say he thought if he had the time, and literacy, to find the ideal formulation. Once we leap across the barrier of this alien, and somewhat ponderous, style, we find much to admire. The prose is, at times, beautiful, and rarely if ever is it ugly or jarring. It adheres fanatically to the dictum to show and not tell – only, rather than the dichotomy of ‘showing’ as action and ‘telling’ as authorial description, its distinction is between ‘telling’ as literal description and ‘showing’ as imagery, allegory and metaphor. Where other authors use one verb to express an emotion, Adams uses a sentence. Where others use a sentence, Adams uses a paragraph. These similes are usually vivid, and are sometimes imaginative to the point of being bizarre. The most notable example I can recall occurs when Shardik is ill, and Kelderek is observing him. Rather than saying simply “Kelderek was horrified by the poor condition of the bear”, Adams tells us:

“After war has swept across some farm or estate and gone its way, the time comes when villagers or neighbours, their fears aroused by having seen nothing of the occupants, set out for the place. They make their way across the blackened fields or up the lane, looking about them in the unnatural quiet. Soon, seeing no smoke and receiving no reply to their calls, they begin to fear the worst, pointing in silence as they come to the barns with their exposed and thatchless rafters. They begin to search; and at a sudden cry from one of their number come running together before an open, creaking door, where a woman’s body lies sprawling face down across the threshold. There is a quick scurry of rats and a youth turns swiftly aside, white and sick. Some of the men, setting their teeth, go inside and return, carrying the dead bodies of two children and leading a third child who stares about him, crazed beyond weeping. As that farm then appears to those men, who knew it in former days, so Shardik appeared now to Kelderek: and as they look upon the ruin and misery about them, so Kelderek looked at Shardik drinking from the pool.”

A page later, a paragraph is devoted to the disillusionment that accompanies the sight of suffering: “To see strength failing, ferocity grown helpless, power and domination withered by pain as plants by drought – such sights give rise not only to pity but also – and as naturally – to aversion and contempt.” This theme is then illustrated through the image of a dying captain huddled by a fire in the cold, whom we must abandon to his fate before we too succumb to the conditions – we discard our past with him, and decide that it is right that he should be abandoned; and then, suddenly we see him differently: “How odd it is that until now no one, apparently, should have perceived that after all he was never particularly wise; never particularly brave; never particularly honest, particularly truthful, particularly clean.” Psychology in Shardik is displayed not literally but symbolically, in the juxtaposition of and transition between different images and analogies. It is strange to read, and can be alienating, but it can also be beautiful at times, and at times can cut to the heart of a feeling better than literal description could. It is also extremely appropriate to the themes of the novel, in which interpretation and myth are more important than the cold facts themselves.

It may seem slow and plodding, but this is more to do with the plot than the writing – in the passages where real tension and excitement are called for, the archaic style rallies around superbly, and passages such as the battle of the foothills and the end of the Genshed section are dealt with as excitingly as any more sensationalist modern author would be capable of. Adams can write excitingly, and doesn’t even have to change his style to do so – he just chooses, by and large, not to.

That is because the focus of the book is psychology – not, as I say, a mimetic stream-of-consciousness, but a philosophical, ruminative psychology of motivation and theology and self-justification. And here too the style may be unfamiliar, but the effects are powerful – although a large stretch of the third quarter of the book is, through a combination of uneventfulness and mental wrangling, a little slow and difficult for readers expecting more continuous action.

The difficulty I have with the psychology is not the style or the content, but the distribution – certain characters are explored, while others go almost unheeded. Most glaring of these omissions is Ellaroth himself – not only a key character in the plot but also the focus of several chapters. Never, however, do we really see under his mask, except what other viewers can see when he loses control in moments of extreme emotion. This could be effective, except that we see far too little even of the emotionally-masked Ellaroth – in the only chapters where he has considerable screen time, we see him through the dull and somewhat slow eyes of his friend, Mollo, and we are too busy digesting the exposition at this point to concentrate on nuance of character, even should there be any. The result is that by and large, with the exception of one speech (most of which is not translated for us), Ellaroth appears almost entirely free of emotion, motivation or background – dangerously close, at several points, to a deus ex machina. This problem is exacerbated by (or perhaps creates) Ellaroth’s alienation from the main, religious themes of the book – alone of the major characters, Ellaroth could not care less about Shardik either way. While this could present a valuable dash of perspective to the tale (as Siristrou does at the end of the book), the fact that we don’t see much of Ellaroth’s own religion, or anything else that he cares about, it instead makes the character seem somewhat superfluous and artificial. This, however, is in strong contrast to the structure of the book, which presents Ellaroth as one of the most central figures. In particular, his importance at the end of the novel is disappointing – particularly when compared to the near-vanishing of Radu, by then a far more interesting character, and one who could have served much of the narrative function of Ellaroth in the final section.

This should highlight the fact that Shardik is only Adams’ first novel, and its events and themes are on an altogether grander scale than his first – consequently, he does make mistakes in pacing, plot and structure. The opening section needs more Melathys and Bel-ka-Trazet; ideally, more Ta-Kominion as well. Either the first or second section needs more Ged-la-Dan, and ideally more Zelda. As it is, important characters go without definition, or only receive sufficient focus when it is too late. The penultimate section is extremely powerful, but the final section is essentially an epilogue, and far too long and uneventful – which would be more forgivable if it did not then eventually surrender to the necessity of an epilogue-within-an-epilogue (though as a chapter, the final epilogue is both well-written and a brilliant concept to frame the events of the novel). Moreover, though pains are taken to see the effects of past actions, too much of the final section is spent watching characters (most notably Ellaroth) who are relatively unscathed, while Radu, who has been set up as a major focus of the preceding section, is forgotten (along with a few others I wanted to see more of – a certain boy who paces on the shoreline with a stick swearing, for instance).

By far the biggest problem, however, is the lacuna between Book II and Book III. It is easy to see why this temporal void was allowed – the significant events of the gap would have been spread out over years, making them difficult to relate coherently, while most of the characters, both new and old, would have been doing very little. Nonetheless, I believe that finding a way of filling this gap could have greatly improved the novel, for several reasons:

–         It would have given us time to know get to know Ellaroth, making the third book far more emotive. He’s not a character, as I’ve said above, who we can love on first sight.

–         It would have allowed us to see the reaction to the death of a certain character in the preceding book – as it is, they seem to fade from the story too easily, not casting that shadow that in reality they would have cast.

–         It would have allowed us to see Zelda and, in particular, Ged-la-Dan in the hour of their darkest deeds. Zelda is shown as somewhat sympathetic both before and after, and although we see the darker point in hindsight, this does not have the same power as watching him live through them. Indeed, I would suggest that Ellaroth and Zelda should have shared this section. Ged-la-Dan is an important shadow-antagonist throughout the novel who never gets enough screentime. Showing more clearly the complicated relationship between Ged-la-Dan and Crendrik would have put the latter’s decisions in a more nuanced background. As it is, I feel it is too easy to hate Crendrik, as indeed I did on first reading.

–         It would have shown us Kelderek’s Third Big Decision, and possibly the biggest of the three. The decision he makes, while sensible and rationalised in hindsight, is probably the most important event in the novel, and the impetus to the whole of the second half, yet inexplicably we never see it. Accordingly, we’re not fully engaged as he deliberates whether or not he was right, which takes away much of the power of the novel.

–         It would balance the overall structure of the novel, which leans to heavily toward the second half

This lack of balance is made worse by the uneven narrative technique of exploring different points of view. In my reaction to Legend, I denigrated Gemmell’s use of mini-POVs of various minor characters, which lacked sufficient depth and relevance; Adams shows how this ought to be done. Rather than a paragraph or two, Adams devotes pages, or even chapters, to different perspectives, and this shows us the events in question in an altogether different light. I only wish he had done it more. Unfortunately, only the early sections show this variety, with the book increasingly focusing on Kelderek solely. The book suffers as a result – partly because it accentuates the degree to which the book is unbalanced, and partly because overexposure makes Kelderek’s dilemmas less affective. It’s also unnecessary. While much of the middle section is doomed to be Kelderek-dominated, there is no reason why the latter sections could not have featured the perspectives of Ellaroth (or someone close to him), Radu, the Tuginda, or a certain woman. Indeed, best of all would have been the perspective of Lalloc, or even Genshed – although I can understand why Adams may have felt unable to do this (and thankfully, in the case of Lalloc, as the ridiculous accent-writing would have become unbearable).

This, however, touches on a further problem: it is clear the ending matters more to Adams than to me. I feel a little guilty about this, as it’s the sort of moral issue we can’t respectably ignore – and indeed it is affective (a certain moment with Genshed in the deserted village may well compete for ‘most gut-wrenchingly horrible paragraph’ among the novels I’ve read). It just get a feeling that it’s not as affective for me as it’s meant to be, and that’s alienating for me. I’ve never read Adams’ autobiography, but I hear it has dark moments in it – and he explicitly says in an introductory note that some of the child-torture is written from his own experience. This certainly makes it even darker (Adams, like Ellaroth, has a stiff-upper lip mentality that can neuter some of the darker moments, downgrading them from horrific to merely disturbingly callous, and a glimpse behind the mask can help bring back that colour), but it also makes me aware of a gulf between author and reader – as someone without those experiences, can I ever really understand what the novel is meant to mean? I find myself, rather off-puttingly, wishing that certain scenes had been more brutal, more explicit, more disgusting – not because that would have been enjoyable, but because I think I may need to hear a shout to hear what Adams can hear in a whisper; and yet I doubt Adams could have made himself write any more darkly, even had he so wished. Indeed, the reason he added that autobiographical hint at the beginning was to seek to avoid accusations from readers that he had the sort of mind that could have invented such things.

Nor need those concerns be unfounded: we must remember that this novel was written in the 1970s, when child abuse, sexual slavery and the other issues raised were not perhaps as openly discussed as today, and certainly not as openly the topic of popular entertainment. And perhaps that is a good thing in this case: not only in relation to Genshed, but also regarding the stories we hear from some women near the end of the novel (and indeed some of the war scenes and their consequences earlier on), Shardik is a novel that touches on the worst things a novel can deal with, and a less inhibited writer could have let it plunge to, frankly, limitless depths of pain and suffering quite easily. On the one hand, I would love to see what a writer of such quality could have done off the leash, and what an incredible book Shardik might have been – but on the other hand, I know that it’s not exactly comfortable reading at the moment, and there is a point where ‘artistically valuable’ is less salient than ‘too harrowing to read’.

I have, then, discussed many flaws in the book. I tend to do that – I assume perfection, and try to detail why it was not always attained. Nonetheless, if other people are to gain anything from this, perhaps I should say some words on why the book is actually worth reading. What’s it got?

–         It’s dark. As I say, this isn’t portrayed in a sensationalist style – indeed, the very contrary. Nonetheless, rape and murder and mutilation are constant features, and are just as likely to happen to children as to adults. This is not some run-of-the-mill fluffy-dragon fantasy that tosses around war and slavery without any attention to what the words really mean. Bekla may not be a completely convincing world in terms of geography and sociology, but it is impressively real in terms of psychology and human suffering. The style is archaic, but the contents are decidedly modern.

–         It deals in Real Human Themes that may be raised in a fantasy world, but that have application in real life – faith, courage, belief, reason, pragmatism, which ends justify which means, honour, power, the nature and effect of cruelty… it may occasionally seem to have made up its mind on some of these (particularly religion), but it’s never hectoring in tone, and usually at least tries to be nuanced, and show different points of view.

–         The writing style, both in prose and in descriptive technique, are highly distinctive, and effective, if you can get used to them.

–         It’s original in execution. The fact that Watership Down is more approachable suggests that much of the theatrical prose style is an experimental affectation, and throughout the book there are further experiments – from the first chapter (through the perspective of a non-sentient animal with no thinking creature appearing at all) through to the last (a brilliant conceit that, unlike most epilogues, manages to put the entire novel that has come before into a new light).

Overall, I think the best way to sum up the novel is to say that it’s somewhat odd literary fantasy, which might not satisfy those seeking the very best the genre has to offer, but should absolutely be considered by anyone who genuinely desires to read a fantasy novel that is nothing like conventional fantasy – and of course anybody interested in religion in fantasy. And anybody who loved Watership Down but didn’t know he wrote anything else – if nothing else, they’ll come away with a greater appreciation of the breadth of the man’s skill.

As for myself… no, Shardik wasn’t as good as I remember it being, but it will always have a place in my affections, and I’ve no doubt I’ll reread it again in the future [and the phrase “all the way, underground” will probably feature prominently in future nightmares, along with the myth of Leg-by-Lee]. As for Adams’ third novel, Maia, I admit to mixed anticipations – on the one hand, the thought of a novel focusing less on the elevated part of Shardik and more on the darker parts is appealing; on the other hand, the time period is uninteresting to me, perhaps because I feel it would be too familiar. Also, I didn’t exactly find Shardik gripping, even if it was ultimately fairly satisfying. I think that I’ll keep an eye out for Maia in second-hand bookshops, but not actually go out and buy it online. There’s so many other books I’ve to read first…

So, finally, to tidy things up (and apologies for the long length of the review, by the way – I guess the book just struck some chords with me), some numbers:

Adrenaline: 3/5. It’s slow and pensive, not exciting, and could easily have been a 2 – it even touches 1 at times. However, when the story calls for it, Adams can whip up the adrenaline, and there’s a couple of really good chapters in this respect, so I’m bumping it up to a 3.

Emotion: 4/5. Yes, part of the emotion provoked is anger, and part disgust, as well as the occasional happy moment. But I felt that it was all intended by the book, not directed at the book per se. Some of the book is a little cold, but I was very close to, and perhaps actually in, tears at one point. I cry fairly easily at books, I’ll admit, but it’s still a good sign.

Thought: 4/5. It doesn’t really manage to be as fascinating and nuanced as it could be, but nonetheless it’s an intelligent and thought-provoking book.

Beauty: 4/5. A little too… measured and marble for me to love it, but it’s distinctly above average aesthetically, both in prose and in imagery. In particular, I love Adams’ flair for remote analogies.

Craft: 3/5. Mostly… not noticeable. By that I mean that by and large I wasn’t thinking about craft as I read the book. I think that’s above average and deserves a 4. However, the big structural problem I mentioned above counts against it, and so does the most mishandled fall-in-love subplot I think I’ve ever read. However, the structural problems only became clear to me after some reflection, and the romance issue isn’t big or important enough to really spoil it. So 3.

Endearingness: 3/5. Well, it has a place in my affections. I’m sure I’ll recommend it to anybody who asks. I will reread it, I know. When I think of it, positive emotions occur. I like it, I can’t say why – and I mean like, not ‘think it good’, nor ‘enjoy reading it’, but actually like. But against that, overall… it’s just a bit too stony and unapproachable for me to say it’s above average here.

Originality: 4/5. There’s nothing here that’s stunningly wow-that’s-a-brilliant-idea original. However, I certainly couldn’t have written it, and there’s almost nothing that feels reused or over-familiar. Partly that’s because this book predates all those fantasy novels that have set the nature of cliché in the genre – which only makes it more admirably pioneering. This shows what fantasy ought to be: a genre filled with books that you’ll never find a twin of.

Overall: 6/7: Very Good.