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Readings & Watchings 5

Time to look in the bucket once again after another shift at the coalface of culture. You know how this works…

Books
The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (2006), was March’s book for my 2010 Reading Challenge. I reviewed it here.

A White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper, which comprises The Road to Corlay (1978), A Dream of Kinship (1981) and A Tapestry of Time (1982). These are set at the turn of the fourth millennium, a thousand years after global warming resulted in great floods, and the UK is an archipelago of seven kingdoms. Technology has fallen back to roughly mediaeval level, and a militant church runs much of the UK. Peter, a travelling story-teller, takes Tom, a young piper, to York to enroll him in the Minster school, but Tom is not all he seems. If he’s not the prophesied White Bird, then he is its prophet… Some years later, Tom’s death has resulted in a new religion, Kinship. A man is found floating in the sea off the island of Quantock (what were the Quantock Hills near Taunton), and put in the care of Jane, a potter’s daughter, who is huesh (she can see the future). Meanwhile, one thousand years earlier, Dr Mike Carver is in a coma following an experiment. Somehow he’s trapped in the mind of Thomas of Norwich, the man being cared for by Jane. The Road to Corlay, as the title suggests, covers the origin of the Kinship religion. By the second book, A Dream of Kinship, it’s reasonably well-established, albeit still a minority religion and considered heretical by Christianity. It’s also morphing into Christianity – accreting the creed and ceremony of the church it’s replacing. The story is told through Tom, son of Jane and Thomas of Norwich, as he grows up and studies at the religion’s centre, Corlay on the Isle of Brittany. The Christian Church plans to safeguard its stranglehold on the Seven Kingdoms by seizing control, but Tom manages to prevent this happening in the First Kingdom. In the final book, A Tapestry of Time, the parallels between Kinship’s history and Christianity’s history have become more marked. Tom travels about Europe with his girlfriend Witchet as an itinerant musician. There’s nasty incident in the French Alps, and Tom gives up on Kinship. But events lead him back to it – but in opposition to Brother Francis, who is Kinship’s St Paul. The final section of the book is set 800 years later, as two Oxford dons in a faux-Victorian/Edwardian English society, are “helped” to uncover the original Kinship, and not the church that has grown up around it. Again, Cowper’s clearly riffing off Pauline Christianity. They’re good books these three – well-written and interesting science fiction. Perhaps it’s a little implausible that British society would culturally repeat itself after the Drowning when the icecaps melted – mediaeval in 3000 AD, Victorian 800 years later. But that’s a minor quibble – Cowper makes it work.

The Lemur, Benjamin Black (2008). Black is better known as John Banville. This is the pseudonym he uses when he’s writing thrillers. Although, to be honest, The Lemur was not exactly a thrilling read. John Glass is an ex-reporter who married into a rich family. His father-in-law asks him to write a biography, so he hires a researcher, who Glass dubs “The Lemur” as he thinks he resembles one. A couple of days later, the researcher tries to blackmail Glass, and is subsequently murdered. Glass is worried that the murderer was his father-in-law, an ex-CIA telecoms billionaire, whose riches he resents (even while being kept by them). The Lemur isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more of a character portrait of Glass. A quick read, but not a bad one.

The Magus, John Fowles (1977), I wasn’t expecting to finish so quickly – it’s a fat book: 656 pages in my Vintage paperback edition. But Fowles is an amazingly readable writer, which is one reason why I like his fiction so much. In The Magus, Nicholas Urfe accepts a position as teacher at a boarding school on the invented Greek island of Phraxos. There, he meets Maurice Conchis, a millionaire who owns a villa on the island. Conchis involves Urfe in a series of psychological games – few of which appear to make much sense. And that’s part of the appeal of The Magus: the promise that Conchis’s “experiments” on Urfe, the situations he devises, will be explained. And yet what little explanation does eventually come – when the motive is finally revealed – it stretches credulity. Urfe is also an unsympathetic narrator: he’s crass and arrogant. Conchis is little better, full of aphorisms that don’t submit to scrutiny. If Fowles’ Mantissa was a dirty old man’s book, then The Magus is definitely a young man’s book. Fowles himself describes it in the introduction to this 1977 revised edition as a “novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent”. Which is a bit harsh. It’s not as amazing a novel as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or as good as A Maggot, and it’s probably a book best read when young; but neither is it not a very good book.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928), surprised me. Obviously, I’m aware of Lawrence’s reputation but, given that my read of another highly-regarded author from the 1920s hadn’t been entirely successful (see here), I’d expected Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be a bit of a slog. Early indications were not good. The narrative opened very much as a story told to the reader, with no effort made to disguise its nature as a work of fiction – no attempt at immersion, in other words. The dialogue didn’t help either – too! many! exclamation marks! But then – and weirdly this echoed an identical moment in Pascale Ferran’s film adaptation of the book (see here) – the story seemed to settle down, and Lawrence pulled out some lovely writing about the countryside around Wragby, the Chatterley ancestral home in Derbyshire. Then the characters of Constance and Mellors began to gain depth, proving far more complex and rounded than I’d expected from the film adaptations I’d seen. In fact, they were very much unlike their cinematic counterparts. I was also amused to see my birth town of Mansfield described as “that once-romantic, now utterly disheartening colliery town” since I can’t imagine it ever having been romantic. I was going to put this book up on readitswapit.co.uk once I’d read it, but I’m going to hang on to it instead. It’s definitely worth a reread. And I think I’ll read me some more Lawrence as well at some point.

Majestrum, Matthew Hughes (2006), is another Vanceian tale from an author who has built a career out of writing Vanceian tales. This is no bad thing. Jack Vance is a singular talent, but Hughes has come the closest of anyone to emulating him – and, on occasion, even doing better perhaps. I’ve enjoyed other Hughes novels – I reviewed one, Template, for Interzone – but I wasn’t as keen on Majestrum. Like those others of his I’ve read, it’s set in Hughes’ Archonate universe, but it focuses on Henghis Hapthorn, a “discriminator” (sort of a private investigator). He’s recruited by Lord Arfe to uncover the background of the man wooing the aristocrat’s daughter. This then proves linked to a conspiracy directed at the Archon. And it’s all to do with a past age of magic trying to subvert the current age of reason. There are some really nice touches in Majestrum, and Hughes’s prose is very much like Vance’s… but I was put off a little by the mix of sf and magic.

Films
For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I should really do a proper review of this for my Space Books blog (and the same for In The Shadow Of The Moon too, which I also own). In fact, I think I will. So keep an eye open there for it.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, dir. David Fincher (2008), was one of those films remarked on more on for a technical achievement than for anything else. Mind you, it was enough to see it nominated at the 2009 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Costume, Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects. It won Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects. Because, well, that’s all that’s really remarkable about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. In it, Brad Pitt plays the title character, who ages backwards. He’s born an old man (but baby-sized), and grows younger as he, er, ages. It’s based on a story by F Scott Fitzgerald. It’s also a “homily film”, sort of like Forrest Gump – you know, a life story in which someone learns a series of life lessons of the type which are found in fortune cookies or self-help books with asinine titles. The film looked really good, and the getting-younger-while-getting-older effect was cleverly done. Which is no doubt why it took the Oscars it did.

Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, and The Chamber Of Secrets, and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and The Goblet Of Fire, dir. various hands (2001 – 2005). I read the first book many years ago and thought it remarkably ordinary. But I’d never seen the films. Despite the fact they’ve been on telly zillions of times. So I bagged cheap copies off eBay, and sat and watched them and… they’re not very good, are they? In those first two, the acting is definitely poor. The game of Quidditch makes no sense; nor does it feel like the sort of game that would be played at a public school. Things gets introduced into the world, with no back-story, just when they appear in the plot, which itself is nothing wildly original. Yes, the third film, Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, is better than the preceding two, but that’s no great achievement. The fourth film isn’t bad either, and is probably the best-plotted of the four. Mind you, its plot is a straightforward quest: win the competition! Anyway, I’ve seen them now. And the DVDs will be going back onto eBay.

Summer Hours, dir. Oliver Assayas (2008), is the fifth film by Assayas I’ve seen and, I think, the best one so far. It’s a French family drama. Two brothers and a sister – one brother lives in Paris, the other in Shanghai, and the sister in New York – meet up each summer. But then their mother dies, and circumstances preclude any future annual get-togethers, so they must pack up their mother’s house and the childhood memories they have of the place. A well-acted, well-scripted ensemble piece. Recommended.

Alien Hunter, dir. Ron Krauss (2003). James spader must be a science fiction fan. How else to explain all the crap sf films he appears in? He can’t be that desperate for work. In this one, an alien object is found under the ice in Antarctica, and taken to a corporate research facility on the continent. Spader, a cryptologist who used to work for SETI, is sent to investigate. But there’s an alien creature inside the object, and it breaks out and infects everyone with an alien virus which causes death in a matter of seconds. They should have titled the film Alien Rip-Off as there’s nothing original about the story. Best avoided.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, dir. Gavin Hood (2009). So, after watching the three X-Men films, you thought you knew how Wolverine became like he is? Wrong. The title sequence to X-Men Origins: Wolverine is pretty good, showing Wolverine and his brother, Sabretooth, fighting in various wars. After an incident during the Vietnam War, the two are recruited by Colonel Stryker for his mutant task force, Team X. But Wolverine falls out with Stryker, and walks away. Some time later, his brother tracks him down, and kills his fiancée. Wolverine subsequently submits to have his skeleton coated with adamantium by Stryker, as only then will he be strong enough to kill Sabretooth. But it was all a cunning plot by Stryker in the first place… I thought the film was supposed to take place during the late 1960s / early 1970s, but you’d never have known from the production design. The film’s all a bit meh, possibly because Wolverine just isn’t an interesting enough character to carry a film on his own, and the supporting cast are pretty dull.

Top Hat, dir. Mark Sandrich (1936), is another one from one of those Top 100 Films lists – although I forget which list. Fred Astaire really was an odd-looking bloke. His head is a peculiar shape. And he had a horribly insipid singing voice. But, as was famously said, he “can dance a little”. This is arguably his best film which, to be honest, doesn’t say a great deal for his other films (and he made thirty-one). In Top Hat, Fred fancies Ginger, a friend of the wife of his producer. So he stalks her. Then she gets confused and thinks that Fred is his producer – i.e., married to her friend. The wife is not surprised that her husband is pursuing Ginger, and so the two plot to teach him a lesson. Except, of course, it’s not the producer, but Fred. The situation is well-handled and amusing, but the clomping wit leaves something to be desired. The musical numbers are everything you’d expect. Entertaining, but definitely rough around the edges.

Maroc 7, dir. Gerry O’Hara (1967), I watched for a review for VideoVista.

The Magus, dir. Guy Green (1968), I watched again after finishing the book (see above). Michael Caine has described the film as the worst he ever worked on because no one knew what it was about. Fowles wrote the screenplay himself, and he made changes to the story. Changing Alison, an Australian, into Anne, who is French, was, I imagine, necessary after Anna Karina was cast in the part. Other alterations were more substantial. The twins June and Judy (AKA Rose and Lily) have become a single person (played by Candice Bergen). Many of the games Conchis plays on Urfe have been cut – there simply wasn’t room for them, I assume – although the main ones are there. But the entire final section of the book, in which Urfe returns to the UK and tries to discover Conchis’ true identity has been completely cut. Having read the book, the film is an unsatisfactory adaptation, but it’s hard to imagine how Fowles could have adapted it anyway. Fowles appears in the film, incidentally – during the opening credits, he’s the deckhand who says, “Phraxos” to Michael Caine.

Ma Mère, dir. Christophe Honoré (2004), is another Isabelle Huppert film and is based on a 1966 novel by Georges Bataille of the same title. A young man, fresh out of Catholic school, visits his parents on Gran Canaria. His father, who he hates, dies in an accident shortly afterwards, and the young man is introduced to a life of sex and depravity – the Canary Islands night-life, in other words – by his mother. I really didn’t like this film. Thoroughly unlikeable characters doing unlikeable things, with a narcissistic self-regard which in no way makes their antics entertaining. It might make for a good novel, but it doesn’t make for a good film. Mind you, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could make an entertaining film out of Houellebecq’s Atomised, but Oskar Roehler did (see here).

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Fantasy Challenge #3: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie

Yes, I should have posted this last month. But with one thing and another, I didn’t actually get to the book until early April, and I only finished it a couple of days ago. And I still have April’s book for the fantasy challenge to read and review.

But, The Blade Itself… I had high expectations for this novel, as I’ve yet to see a bad review of it. Admittedly, most of those reviews are by people who are bigger fans of secondary-world fantasy than I am. I may have read my fair share, but it’s by no means my first choice of reading. Or second. Or even third or fourth. And for all that I’ve read many of the popular fantasy writers – Tolkien, Jordan, Erikson, Martin, Moorcock, Donaldson, etc. – I’ve never found them an especially satisfying read. The Blade Itself then, I hoped, given its reputation, might prove something different. After all, it was in part because of books such as The Blade Itself – and their reputations – that I chose to make this year’s reading challenge a fantasy challenge.

So if I’ve laden down Joe Abercrombie’s novel with great expectations, I’ve done no more than all those book bloggers and reviewers out there who praise it. And… you just know I’m going to bury it. Sort of.

As far as I can determine, The Blade Itself‘s reputation rests in part on its subverting of genre stereotypes. There’s no peasant hero, no hidden king, no dark lord, no plot coupons or quest. This is a book which rejects templates and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Mostly. The novel’s plot is a case in point. The barbarians in the north have finally organised under a king, Bethold, and are threatening to invade Angland, a northern territory belong to the Union (a united island kingdom). To the south, the city of Dagoska is about to be besieged by the Gurkish Empire, which occupies the continent from which it depends Gibraltar-like. This story is told through the viewpoints of a handful of disparate characters: Logen Ninefingers, an exiled northern barbarian; Inquisitor Glokta, a war hero who is now a despised cripple and torturer; and Captain Jezal dan Luthar, a lazy, arrogant, and not too intelligent officer in the King’s army.

Once upon a time, I thought writing a story featuring a cast of unlikeable characters would be an interesting exercise. Many novels, for example, have anti-heroes – indeed Moorcock created an entire canon of fantasy works featuring anti-heroes. But unlikeable characters and anti-heroes are not the same thing. Abercrombie’s characters are unlikeable – more than that, they’re often despicable. This may be bucking the stereotypes in secondary-world fantasy literature, but Warhammer and other RPGs have been doing it for years. And while it may be an interesting writing exercise, it’s a less interesting reading exercise. I didn’t like Luthar or Glokta; Ninefingers was Conan without the boasting. I didn’t understand why I should want to read their stories. I don’t want to read about prats and pillocks, I see enough of them in real life.

Having said that, the cast of The Blade Itself – and one or two of the secondary characters are actually quite sympathetic – wouldn’t have been so annoying if they had been properly characterised. But Abercrombie uses a technique common in secondary-world fantasy: characterisation by quirk. Each character has a distinctive speech pattern – and some are so distinctive they’re pretty much parodies. Or, in the case of Glokta, Abercrombie presents his thoughts italicised in the prose. And because only Glokta’s thoughts are presented to the reader, he often feels as though he escaped from another book.

The plot has in its favour that it’s not a quest. Having said that, the build up to a war on two fronts is not the most exciting of stories – especially given that The Blade Itself tells it only from the Union’s point of view, and we have only its upper echelons’ prejudiced view of the motives of the northern barbarians and the Gurkish Empire. And those upper echelons are even more of a parody than the central cast. Abercrombie adds to this meagre plot through the introduction of Bayaz, First of the Magi. Ages past, apparently – although exactly when is unclear; certainly several centuries ago – a group of wizards did something which entered legend. Bayaz was one of them, but now he has come back to the Union’s capital, Adua. Except they’re not convinced he is who he says he is…

The Blade Itself is a secondary-world fantasy, which means its world is important. I’m tempted to think a secondary world is more of a hygiene factor – a bad one won’t ruin a book, but a good one will improve it – but perhaps that’s because so many are based on the same models. The world of The Blade Itself is vaguer than most – there’s no map, for example – which actually works to its advantage. Nothing is especially original, and the various societies’ models are plain, but by refusing to treat his novel like a role-playing game supplement, Abercrombie has pushed his story onto his characters. Which would be both a clever move and admirable, if only the characters weren’t such caricatures. Nonetheless, it’s an improvement on many other secondary-world fantasies.

There are some interesting bits in there. But, as in other books of this type, they’re buried in the back-story and it’s only their effect on the narrative which is described. In The Blade Itself, it’s the story of the Maker, and the visit by Bayaz and a handful of others into the House of the Maker, a vast tower in the centre of Adua. That bit I did like.

If there’s a word I’ve heard most associated with The Blade Itself more than any other, it’s “gritty”. I’m not sure if this refers to the unlikeable characters or the level of violence. Because it is a violent book. The damage inflicted in each of the many fight scenes is very detailed. You’d expect a secondary-world fantasy to be violent – it’s in the nature of the genre, they have swords and battles and good versus evil – but none seem to revel in the blood and guts as much as The Blade Itself does. But violence, in fiction as in real life, should be used sparingly. Too much gore on the page, and the story turns into little more than a framing mechanism for one fight after another. A plot needs to be more than that. Thankfully, Abercrombie likes his fight scenes, but he doesn’t let them take over his story.

It occurred to me as I read The Blade Itself that one of the reasons I often find secondary-world fantasy so dissatisfying is because there’s little in it to impress me. In science fiction, you have “eyeball kicks”, or concepts which appeal directly to your sense of wonder; in literary fiction, you can find lovely prose, or an insight whose truth seems so self-evident you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself, or perhaps an artfully-turned plot that causes you to question everything that has gone before. Secondary-world fantasy offers none of these. It is world-building and story. And the world-building is so often built on historical, or earlier fictional, models that little of it comes as a surprise. The story likewise often follows a tried and tested formula. There’s nothing in them to impress me; I don’t find them satisfying reads.

The Blade Itself is a case in point. It’s undoubtedly better than Pawn of Prophecy (see here). Its prose is not as assured as Assassin’s Apprentice – it is, in fact, often clumsy, although it does improve as it progresses – but its world-building is not as dull as in Hobb’s novel (see here). Its plot is certainly less clichéd, and its cast of characters so much anti-stereotype they’ve turned into parodies.

I approached The Blade Itself with high expectations. For a secondary-world fantasy. Which was somewhat unfair. But then, if you approach a book with low expectations and it exceeds them, that doesn’t mean it’s a good book. When people say science fiction should not be held to the same standard as other branches of fiction, that cardboard characters and plonking prose are fine because it’s science fiction… they’re talking crap. The same holds true for secondary-world fantasy. A good secondary-world fantasy should still be a good book. There should be no caveats, no special generic dispensations.

Will I read the next book in The First Law trilogy? Given the size of the TBR pile – not to mention the two cardboard boxes of books I “quite fancy” reading I have in the other room – no, it’s not going to happen. I don’t especially care what happens to the characters, and if the trilogy’s story-arc is simply a war on two fronts, then I don’t especially care how the trilogy ends. The Blade Itself is the best of the three fantasy novels I’ve read for this challenge so far, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll be the best of the year…