Thursday, 29 September 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

First published in 2004, it is a testament to this novel's popularity that I had to wait months for it to become available at the library, only to discover that due to demand it can only be taken out for two weeks at a time and it was approximately a thousand pages long. Luckily I am a fast reader and even though it is large, it is not a dense read. From start to finish it was an absolute pleasure. It isn't often I read a book of that size and feel I could instantly dive in and start it again.

Clarke sets her novel in an alternative England, blending the historically accurate with the fantastic. Magic was for centuries widely practised in England and reached its peak under the three hundred year reign of John Uskglass, the Northern King. By the early 19th century magic has died out and is solely the study of theoretical magicians. The novel centres around Mr Norrell, who astounds England by revealing he has the ability to practice magic, and Jonathan Strange, a younger man with magical abilities who becomes his pupil. Norrell and Strange have a complicated relationship that Clarke depicts very realistically; as the only two magicians in England they want to work together, but vanity and ego inevitably get in the way.

The depiction of England is very recognisable, with many historical episodes and people, such as a mad king on the throne, and the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. The prose is at times reminiscent of Jane Austen, with a wry tone creeping in. Clarke also uses old fashioned spelling of words familiar to readers of Austen, such as ‘chuse’ for ‘choose’. Dickens is also called to mind, largely through the pencil illustrations throughout the book. Footnotes are widely used throughout the novel, some as scholarly references explaining magical terms and theory. Others create the mythology of this version of England, with centuries old stories of Uskglass and his fairy cohorts. Often amusing, these footnotes are an effective tool for our understanding of this world.

For all the lightness of tone in this novel, magic is often depicted very darkly. The tales of Uskglass, like many of our own fairytales, often involve acts of cruelty. Magic leads Norrell and Strange down dangerous paths. The few times we get a glimpse into the fairy kingdom we see a cruel and menacing world. Early in the novel Norrell makes an unwise pact with a fairy, the Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair, to bring the young Lady Pole back to life. By his terms Lady Pole will live but spend half her life in the fairy kingdom. While Norrell believes she will appear to die after thirty years or so, in reality she is forced by the fairy to spend every night at balls in his castle, in the kingdom of Lost-Hope. Through her the fairy meets Stephen Black, her husband’s servant, and he too is enchanted. The fairy is attracted to beautiful people and things; the guests at his balls wear beautiful clothes, and he gifts Stephen priceless ornaments and treasure. For all this, his house is a cold, unwelcoming place. Unable to speak out and weary, Pole and Black can do nothing. The Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair is unable to understand they do not want to be there, that they do not want his gifts, that they find meaning in their human lives. He exists outside any human constructs of morality, and by extension so does the rest of the magical world. Norrell and Strange have opened England up to perilous forces.

The above subplot is the most major of many in this book; if any criticism can be made of this novel it is that Clarke does spend some time on events and characters that are not strictly necessary for the main thrust of the story. But it is such an enjoyable world to spend time in, and many of these diversions so entertaining in their own right, that it is a fairly minor quibble. The end brings many different storylines and details together neatly and smoothly; also I found it to be unexpectedly moving. I was left with a satisfying lump in my throat at a beautiful ending to a beautiful book.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

The novel begins in modern day London with Jake Marlow, a two hundred year old werewolf. Jake has discovered he is the last living werewolf, the penultimate wolf having being beheaded by members of the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP). Jake is not only their final target, he is highly prized, having killed the father of WOCOP's leader some forty years ago. But Jake, educated, erudite and highly sexed, is tired of his existence and considers accepting species extinction by allowing WOCOP to find him at the next full moon - that is until he discovers something that gives him a reason to go on with life. With WOCOP hot on his tail (sorry), Jake goes on the run.

The novel is narrated by Jake and his tone of voice is very important. For the first third of the novel Jake speaks to us as the jaded, world-weary being that he is. Luckily he is intelligent and well informed enough that this isnt tiresome, and before we begin to find it tiresome anyway, Jakes life takes a dramatic twist and we get to go along for the ride. I did find some of the opening chapters a little overwritten for my taste. Sentences such as leaving him alone with his conscience was like leaving a child alone with a paedophile are, in my opinion, a bit silly. However the way it is written is so appropriate for the character, and lines like the aforementioned infrequent enough, that they didnt lessen my enjoyment of the book overall. The final acts are a rollicking read. Duncan leads you through many twists and turns without it getting so complicated you get lost, and it is a pleasure to read a book with twists you dont see coming that still make sense.

The world of the werewolf is fantastically realised. Jake is neither a man or a beast, but an awkward combination of both. He is a man most of the time, but his life is dominated by a monthly cycle culminating in the murder, and eating, of a human on the night of the full moon. As the moon waxes Jake feels the wolf growing inside him, phantom claws and muzzle itching to get out, joints popping, The Hunger (as he calls it) taking over his body so he stops eating, and his libido ramped up to absurd degrees. As a werewolf, The Hunger is overpowering. One of Duncans cleverest touches is Jake not only eats the flesh, he also consumes the life itself; psychically learning who they are, what they have done. His first victim, someone known to him, hovers in Jake; a tortuous reminder of what he has become. The only afterlife his victims get is inside him.

Jake lives as a human, with a human's conscience, yet he is a monster; every month a person dies so that he can continue to live. He carries on, accepting the fact of his monstrosity, because at heart the thing that unites all living creatures is a desire for survival. He is also alone. Werewolves are unable to reproduce, the bite having stopped working not long after Jake was turned. Jake looks at recent history, the holocaust, the atomic bomb, reality TV and wonders if this is because people no longer need monsters. We consume, survive, and others die. We are the monsters.

Although this is a horror book with a little more meat (sorry) than the standard fare, Duncan never allows the big metaphors to derail the narrative. If you are put off by blood or sex (did I mention there is a lot of sex) this may not be the one for you. I, however, enjoyed it very much. The final act had me absolutely hooked. I suspect we may see a sequel; Ill be reading it.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

So much hype. So much publicity. So many, many pages. What better book to take on holiday than Game of Thrones, the first instalment of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. But did it live up to expectations? Well, I have already read the second book, and bought the third. So, yes.

This is a work of High Fantasy, set in a medieval, feudal world in which seasons last for years and the Stark family hold the northernmost lands in the kingdom. The novel begins in the ninth year of summer with King Roberts visit to Eddard Stark, a childhood friend, who was instrumental in fighting the war that ended with Robert on the Iron Throne. Robert, tired with everything that comes with being the King except for getting what he wants, needs Eddard to be his Hand. As the King eloquently puts it - what the King eats, the Hand shits. From here the novel spins out into a much wider world full of spies and subterfuge, where death is only a sudden sword stroke away. As the Stark family motto tells us, winter is coming, and as the season changes so too does the balance of power.
The novel is told in third person (he or she) but with a shifting character focus each chapter. Martin uses this well, narrating the same events from opposing sides. Sometimes, in building up to a crucial piece of the plot, it is only after you have read two or three chapters that you can put the pieces together. The Stark family take up the majority of chapters: Eddard, his wife Catelyn and the children - both his bastard son and the trueborn. Eddard is loyal, pious and kind; the classic hero every fantasy novel needs. However Martin does not keep things one sided. We also follow an exiled princess, and a personal favourite, Tyrion Lannister, devious brother-in-law of the King. While the Lannisters are the bad guys in this book, Tyrion is just enough of an outcast in his own family, and given such an intelligent and witty mind, that you can like him. Martin is adept at making you feel for characters who are not necessarily likable. Sansa the eldest Stark daughter is unbearably prim, but throughout the second novel I found myself reading her chapters with a sense of dread at the helpless position she is placed in.

Martin imbues the books with a sense of history. Events in the past are defining the loyalties in current politics. With so many characters and competing storylines, never mind the world building, these books are dense, but I think Martin does well to keep the narrative clear and easy to follow. But beware there is no neat ending. The fifth book has just been published and more are supposedly coming. My main concern is: Martin, don’t go all Robert Jordan on us. The books are large, but I think a fairly easy read for their size. However if they are too daunting, there is always the HBO series. Sean Bean is in it and that’s never going to hurt.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

One of Peter Carey’s prizewinning novels, Jack Maggs tells the story of a convict recently returned, under penalty of death, to England from New South Wales. Jack Maggs is in search of his son, an orphan boy whose advancement in life has been funded from the fortune he made in Australia. Sound familiar? As the title tells you this book is inspired by Great Expectations. Loosely. So loosely in fact that for the first three quarters I suspected it may have been a cynical ploy to garner attention. Towards the end the debt to Great Expectations, and the story of Pip and Jack Maggs, becomes more important. Perhaps Carey was genuinely inspired and thought it better to acknowledge it openly than attempt to be subtle and run the risk of copying accusations. Still, naming the book Jack Maggs is pretty obvious, you cant tell me the name recognition doesnt count for something on bookshelves. Cynical? Perhaps.

However call this a single stormy cloud on a wide Aussie sky because I thought it was a fabulous book.

Carey ties in the tale of an author, one Tobias Oates, who will one day write a novel about Jack Maggs. Oates is in his mid-twenties and already a successful novelist, as was Charles Dickens at that age. They both had difficult childhoods with fathers in prison (Oates) or debtors prison (Dickens). The parallels are many but subtle and if you knew nothing about Dickens (or indeed, Great Expectations) it would not impinge on your understanding if this novel. It does however illustrate the deftness with which Carey has woven together his story with both the book and its creator, something I think that only becomes apparent on reflection.

Maggs is a fantastic creation, a disturbed and dangerous mind, capable of violence but very human and very vulnerable. We learn much more about Maggs in the latter stages of the novel. However he remains opaque, while Oatess greed, ambition and sordid home life are laid bare for us. Oates sees Maggs as his meal ticket; he will steal the thiefs story and make it his great novel. This, however, will lead him into a power struggle with Maggs which he is never capable of winning. It is this potent combination of two very desperate men that lies at the heart of this novel. Careys character work sets him in good stead. It is this rather than clever inter-textual referencing that ultimately make this book shine.