Friday, 20 January 2012

A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin

The third instalment of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, A Storm of Swords, is the largest - so far - of the series. Originally it was published in two volumes, although it is now possible to buy it as one book as I did. Considering its size, about a thousand pages, it is not a challenging read. Martin certainly knows how to write blockbuster books that keep you gripped.

By A Storm of Swords Martin has a well established world and cast of characters. Or, at least, the characters would be well established if he didn’t kill so many off! The cast of narrators is expanded again, to include Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly; both are welcome additions, with Jaime in particular becoming a bit of a favourite. This happens at the expense of Theon Greyjoy, who I didn’t greatly miss. The characters are spread across a vast geographic area. Therefore there are multiple stories all happening at the same time, some of which barely intersect with the others in the book. If you like concise fiction, perhaps this isn’t the one for you. Martin began his career as a television writer and his desire to write novels grew out of frustration at the constant restrictions he found himself under. In his own words:
‘I’m going to write a story that’s just as big as I want to make it, and I’m going to have castles and battles and dragons and as many characters as I like. There will be no budget, there will be no running time. If I can describe it I can have it.’
There is a certain degree of excess in all these novels, Martin wallows in detail, huge feasts and battles, bloody fights and copious amounts of sex, although thankfully the sexual violence is toned down from A Clash of Kings (this may be partly due to the lack of Theon Greyjoy). I’m often amused at his fascination with the banners carried by the men to identify themselves; people are constantly introduced with a description of the sigil on their tunic, or shield, or whatever, even though we will never meet them again. These details, along with the clear mythology and history, are part of what makes Martin’s world building so successful, although it is his character work that really makes these novels. No one is allowed to be a clear cut good/bad guy; each have flaws, do terrible things in the name of war, and yet we see a human at the heart of each. Jaime and Tyrion Lannister are perhaps the best examples of this, nominally the bad guys and yet so likeable when events are told from their point of view.

It is impossible to discuss Martin’s novels without discussing his propensity to kill off major characters, which is difficult to do without giving massive spoilers. Suffice to say, in two major set pieces in this novel major characters die, unexpectedly, with ramifications that echo throughout the rest of the novel. It is this that helps to keep the novel feeling fresh and exciting. You’re never really sure who is safe or who, as much as you love the character, will turn out to be dispensable. This is tempered though by Martin’s fake killings: a number of characters disappear for huge tracts of the books, only to turn up with a ‘ha ha I’m not really dead’. At times this can be annoying, but there is a really good one of these moments in this one, so I’ve decided to forgive him for this tendency.

If you’re willing to get sucked into a sprawling fantasy epic then I would recommend these. I hope the series finishes well, but so far I think the books have got better as they go on. A sword swinging saga, with dragons, a little bit of heart, and just the right amount of bombast; what more could one ask of a holiday read?

Friday, 6 January 2012

A Conspiracy of Friends: A Corduroy Mansions Novel, by Alexander McCall Smith

Charming. That is the one word review applicable to Alexander McCall Smith’s books. Sometimes treated with disdain by literary types, his series are nevertheless phenomenally successful. So why do so many people love, or hate, his books?

Two of his most popular series are detective series - The No. 1 Lady Detective and The Sunday Philosophy Club. But there are no conflicted investigators or grisly crimes to be solved. They revolve around cheats and liars and two women determined to set things right. Some of the series, including Corduroy Mansions, don’t even have strong central conflicts, but rather have a large cast of characters around which the plot develops. Much of what is entertaining about these books is watching ordinary people muddling their way through mundane lives.

Watching a book show (First Tuesday Book Club, my favourite TV show) last year, a guest stated she would never read an Alexander McCall Smith book when she hadn’t read all of Emile Zola’s novels yet. Well, good for her. Having yet failed to hit it off with Zola (albeit having read only two of his many novels) I don’t understand the contradiction in reading both, but it is typical of the snobbery existing in literary circles. It is the same kind of snobbery that looks down its nose at any genre fiction, as though being shelved under literary fiction at your local bookstore is the only marker of quality. I love to read books that open my mind, that challenge me, and I appreciate quality prose, but I also want books that just entertain me.

Will these books change the course of the world? Be studied for centuries by university types? No. But they are generally entertaining. And A Conspiracy of Friends is no exception. It is a very gentle humour, and inevitably with such a prolific author, it is familiar. But it is so damn charming it’s hard not to read it without a smile on your face. I don’t want to give the impression that people in these books are always ‘nice’ because they aren’t. Characters niggle at each other, undermine and exasperate each other in ways that only people who know you well can. It is often very recognisable, but written with a lightness of tone that doesn’t weigh it down in the realities of life. I don’t want to include any spoilers, but an author who can write accidents involving the Large Hadron Collider in a comedy, is someone who deserves to be enjoyed.