Monday, 1 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy: A New Masterpiece

J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, is a masterpiece of characterisation and storytelling that qualifies it as a literary achievement entirely separate of the author’s previous body of work.
The initial reviews that preceded the novel’s publication were filled with criticism of Rowling’s use of explicit language and adult content. These reviews, it seems, failed to take into consideration the fact that The Casual Vacancy is an adult novel. Rowling has been very clear about this from the book’s very first mention, so the focus on these aspects of the novel is highly superficial, and misinterpreted anyway.

The Casual Vacancy is the story of the members of a small community, the ways that they are mixed up in each other’s lives, and how their own selfishness and pettiness obscures the issues of those who genuinely need help. To disentangle the web of relationships, both whole and broken, of the characters of Pagford seems near-impossible now that I’ve finished the book, but I’ll try and elaborate on the plot a little anyway.
Howard Mollison, obese and falsely genial, is the owner of a deli in Pagford, and the head of the town’s parish council. He is the antagonist in the campaign to sever Pagford’s ties with the housing estate dubbed “The Fields” by locals, believing that the residents there are undeserving of Pagford’s support, and that the picturesque town would do better without the ugly stain of such a connection tarnishing their reputation. When Barry Fairbrother, a council member and former Fields resident, dies unexpectedly, Howard is elated; his main opposition to his anti-Fields campaign has been conveniently eliminated. A casual vacancy arises in Barry’s wake, and several members of the community, each with a different motivation and stance regarding the Fields, step up to fill his shoes. These include Miles, Howard’s mini-me son; Colin Wall, the nervous and emotional school principal; and Simon Price, dodgy employee of the local printing shop. From this premise, Rowling spins her story of small-town corruption and secrecy. Each of the characters has a secret, and some of them begin appearing on the parish council’s website, published by an anonymous user, ominously titled The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother. The skeletons in respective townspeople’s closets begin to appear, and as the past is dredged up, the very fabric of the community begins to change. For some characters, these exposures effect positive changes in their lives, and for others, they bring the walls crashing down around their ears.

Rowling’s characterisation simply shines in The Casual Vacancy. Each and every character is so vivid that the reader’s response to them, whether disgust, sympathy or pity, is visceral and lasting. Rowling imbues nasty, vicious characters with semi-redeemable qualities that leave the reader doubting their absolute opinions, and she occasionally renders small behaviours of the most admirable characters hateful. While this makes for an emotionally turbulent read, it also results in a highly realistic portrayal of the human condition. In the broad spectrum of characters Rowling has drawn in The Casual Vacancy, there are those whose cruelty stems from ignorance or misunderstanding; there are those whose apparent charity is nothing more than a carefully constructed social veneer; there are teenagers who appear spiteful and selfish to their parents, but who carry the burden of a grief to which their parents are oblivious; and, perhaps most importantly, there are people who are dirty, foul-mouthed, ill-educated and promiscuous, who, as Rowling points out so very clearly, are human after all.
  This brings me to Krystal Weedon, whose struggle to care for her four-year-old brother Robbie continues throughout the story. Krystal is a native of the Fields, and her mother, Terri, is a long-term heroin junkie. Krystal has a reputation for being violent, and is generally thought of as a disgusting, foul-mouthed example of why Pagford should excommunicate the Fields. Despite this, though, several characters throughout the book have unexpectedly fond memories of Krystal which often showcase her bravery and confidence in difficult situations. She’s written off by the majority of the community as a no-hoper, and, although she is oblivious to the goings-on of the council, it is she who will be affected most directly by their decision to cut Pagford’s ties with the Fields.

SPOILER ALERT – The section below contains plot spoilers.
A lot of fuss has been made about Rowling’s fairly explicit criticism of the striation of the British social classes in this book. Of course, this is a huge part of the novel, but I felt that it was done beautifully. Krystal’s story ends with a sort of tragic dignity:
By the time Kay and Gaia arrived, and the police decided to force their way in, Krystal Weedon had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them. -481
 It takes Krystal (and Robbie’s) death for the town of Pagford not to realise, but to care about, how badly Krystal had been in need of help. This event shocks some of the citizens into understanding that the petty concerns that they had been preoccupied with were nothing compared to the difficulty Krystal faced every day.

‘…Miles, I saw that boy. Robbie Weedon. I saw him, Miles.’ She was panicky, pleading. ‘He was in St Thomas’ playing field when I walked across it that morning.’
  ‘In the playing field?’
  ‘He must hve been wandering around, while they were – he was all alone,’ she said, remembering the sight of him, dirty ad unkempt. She kept asking herself whether, if he had looked cleaner, she might have been more concerned; whether, on some subliminal level, she had confused his obvious signs of neglect with street-smartness, toughness and resilience. ‘I thought he’d come in there to play, but there was nobody with him.
He was only three and a half, Miles. Why didn’t I ask him who he was with?’  - 494

And while novel’s close sees the redemption of some characters, others are too mired in their own prejudices to see past the fact that Krystal was from the Fields, and therefore not worthy of their concern or even pity. But Rowling, master storyteller that she is, finds some subtle way to punish these characters, ultimately elevating Krystal as the martyr of the story.

Many readers seem to be searching for the link between Hogwarts and Pagford. Rowling has been quite explicit about the fact that there is none. You might see glimpses of some of the same issues that were embedded in the fantastic world of Harry Potter, such as the class divide, but The Burrow is far from the Fields of The Casual Vacancy. In this novel, poverty is not quaint and cozy, but mismanaged and the cause of disease, neglect and death. That said, I do see a connection between the Harry Potter novels and Rowling’s first adult novel. The world of Harry Potter contains many moral lessons for the millions of fans who read the books. For example, issues of discrimination are addressed perhaps without many young readers realising, when lupine Professor Lupin is driven from his post at Hogwarts for a condition he cannot help having. Similarly, we are positioned to be somewhat repulsed by the Malfoys’ decadent mansion, and to feel at home in the dilapidated house of the Weasleys, subliminally coming to associate wealth with evil, and poverty with good, hard-working people (Harry himself always says he would give up his wealth for the Weasleys if only they would let him). The Harry Potter novels, therefore, are a sort of fable – they contain moral lessons imparted by the behaviour of the characters.
I see The Casual Vacancy as a moral tale for adults. The way in which the villagers of Pagford are bound up in their own lives and petty concerns may seem extreme to us, as readers, but when examined closely, is recognisable. Through superficial Samantha Mollison, misogynistic Gavin, cruel, cold-hearted Fats Wall and nervy Sukhvinder, Rowling expounds a new moral message – look around, and take note of those who need your help. Put aside your own concerns, and listen to those of the people around you, even if they are not being spoken aloud. Use your resources for the greater good, and not for the immediate gratification of the few.  

Yes, The Casual Vacancy is about social class, and yes, there’s a lot of swearing, abuse, drug use and sex in this novel. No, of course it isn’t another Harry Potter, it’s far from it. But it is just as good.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Elantris: Sanderson's Stepping Stone to Awesome

Elantris was the city of gods on earth. When ordinary people were taken by the Shaod, a random state of transformation, they underwent the transition from human to all-powerful deity, and moved into the glowing white city of Elantris. There, they were able to provide the people of the surrounding nations with healing, food and guidance, and they lived as the glorified gods they had become. Elantris was a thriving metropolis whose beauty and power was unrivalled, and the Elantrians were benevolent, unsurpassed leaders.  

Ten years before the story begins, the Reod occurred. Instead of transforming random people into beautiful and magical Elantrians, the Shaod now seems to turn them into animated corpses. Elantris faded from brilliant white to black, and its walls, once iridescent with an innate glow, are now covered with black sludge.

Prince Raoden of Kae is taken by the Shaod a week before his politically advantageous marriage to Princess Sarene of Teod. Thrown into Elantris, he endeavours to lift the quality of life for the people trapped inside, and slowly establishes a revolution. Meanwhile, Princess Sarene, bound to Raoden despite his apparent death, travels to Kae to formally mourn the husband she never met. While there, she herself begins a revolution of sorts, albeit a quieter one, seeking to overthrow the capital-driven King Iadon and to implement a more utilitarian government for the people of her new nation. Add to this a maniacal religious faction seeking to seize control of the nation’s reign, and the scene is set for some serious political conflict.  

I very much enjoyed Elantris as a novel. However, it didn’t come close to meeting the high expectations I had established for Sanderson after reading Mistborn first. While characterisation was undoubtedly a strong point again, I felt that several characters were close to becoming clich├ęd. This was particularly true of Sarene, tall and rebellious princess of Teod.  I admired Sanderson’s obvious intention in creating a strong, independent female character, but I feel that the value of this was depleted by how strong and independent Sarene is. Compared to Vin, who is strong and brave, but who is also realistically flawed, Sarene seems a little exaggerated. She’s prone to entering into political arguments with her male companions, teaches the silly, vapid women of court how to fence instead of cross-stitch, and is intent on establishing herself as a political powerhouse amongst the men of court. Of course, these are noble attributes in a female fantasy character – they just aren’t unique. I was further disappointed in Sarene when her self-doubts began to surface; she is self-conscious about her gangly frame and outspoken, rebellious nature, and fears that no man will ever want to marry her. Despite her apparently prodigious fencing ability, she is in constant need of physical protection from men in a variety of situations. Although she has political aspirations, and is successful in nurturing the seeds of dissidence amongst potential rebels, Sarene seems incapable of actioning her political ideas. Rather, it is the men in the novel who carry out Sarene’s work for her, undermining her capacity for political success. During many of the conversations she has with male antagonists, she puts on an air of stupidity, feigning ignorance instead of standing her ground as an equal of the men in the novel. And, to top it all off, when she finally reveals her intelligence to the king she has been fooling, she does so in a fit of hysterical screaming.

As for the plot, Elantris is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action-packed. Somehow, in about 600 pages, Sanderson manages to cover off the establishment of New Elantris, the decline of Old Elantris, the political overhaul of Kae, the threatening of Teod, the religious domination by the Shu-Dereth and the romance (yup, romance) between Sarene and Raoden. With such a rich social, political and religious background to explore, it felt a bit rushed being squeezed into a stand-alone volume. I feel that it may have been more immersive if it were lengthened into a trilogy. I know Sanderson has mentioned a planned sequel to Elantris, but I feel that the novel alone has enough in it to substantiate a trilogy in and of itself.

As you can imagine, my response to Sarene did put a dampener on Elantris for me, but that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book at all.  Much like Mistborn, it’s highly accessible fantasy that is character driven, and that features an interesting magic system.
It’s very important to note that Elantris was Brandon Sanderson’s first novel. This allows for a somewhat different interpretation of Sarene; Sanderson’s intention of creating a strong, vulnerable and accessible female protagonist is only tentatively explored in Elantris, but realised in Mistborn, so I still see Elantris as a highly valuable part of his catalogue, and an excellent book overall. I am glad that I read it after Mistborn, so that I can understand the development Sanderson underwent as an author between the two books. He remains my favourite author currently. 

I am currently reading Warbreaker (and have already made some interesting observations about his female characters in this volume!), and intend to move on to Way of Kings shortly after. Before my Sanderson material runs out, however, I may squeeze in the first of the Dark Tower books, or perhaps Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy. After tossing up whether to read 1Q84 for a few weeks, I decided on downloading the audiobook as a middle ground. I also treated myself to Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet, and am looking forward to some lazy nostalgic reading later in the week.

Tell me – how did you feel about Elantris? Do you think I was too harsh on Sarene? Do you think it would have been better as a trilogy? 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

MISTBORN: Five out of five!

When I first finished The Final Empire, I was itching to write a review about it. The book was stunning, enthralling, and utterly different to any fiction I’d ever read before. I was so addicted to the series, however, that any spare time I might have dedicated to writing a blog was used devouring the second and third books in the trilogy. So, here is my review of the trilogy as a whole.

How great is this cover art?!
In the Mistborn trilogy, Brandon Sanderson takes us to a world where the dark forces have established a seemingly unshakeable reign. The sun is red, ash falls constantly from the sky, and society is broken into two distinct classes. The nobility, descendants of the Lord Ruler’s friends, preside over the skaa, who are seen as physically lesser beings. The skaa are forced to work on plantations and in the streets, and are raped and killed at the whims of the nobility who own them.

On the fringes of The Final Empire, however, exists a black-market network of skaa thieving crews. A young girl, Vin, is kept as a part of a thieving crew because she seems to be “lucky”. When Kelsier, the leader of a particularly efficient crew, comes across Vin, he endeavours to recruit her as part of his next mission – overthrowing the Lord Ruler and his Final Empire.
After a lifetime of abuse and exploitation on the streets, Vin is initially reluctant to trust Kelsier. However, when Kelsier opens Vin’s eyes to the fact that she is not merely “lucky”, but an exceptionally powerful Mistborn, she begins to invest herself in the mission, and with the crew itself.

Sanderson’s characters are drawn with vividness and individuality that can only be described as extraordinary. Vin is the series’ protagonist, and she is an exceptionally good one. She is fiercely loyal, incredibly powerful, unexpectedly intelligent and mentally disturbed. Her past has left an indelible impression on her mentality, and everything she does is affected as a result. Kelsier is an interesting character – he is fanatically, perhaps zealously, passionate, and a gifted orator. He uses unorthodox and often shocking methods to motivate the skaa to rebel, and is revered by the other members of the crew as a genius. It is what happens to Kelsier in the second and third books of the trilogy that is perhaps most intriguing, however…one could say, without spoiling anything, that he becomes something of a god.
  My favourite character was Sazed. He is a Keeper, whose magic system enables him to store powers and capacities in metal bands upon his body. Most importantly, however, Sazed stores knowledge. His personal focus is upon religion. He collects information about all the religions which existed before the Lord Ruler established the Final Empire, and is searching for theological truth. A quiet, subservient and gentle scholar, I felt that Sazed was the most powerful character throughout the series. Although Vin had endured such difficulty and pain throughout her life, it was for Sazed that I felt the most empathy.  I think, too, that Sazed is an expression of Sanderson’s interest in religion…more on that in another post, though.

Brandon Sanderson is known for being particularly adept at creating magic systems. Allomancy (magic of alloys) is completely unique. In the world of the Mistborn series, magic comes from metals. Allomancy is practiced by Mistings, who can “burn” (ingest and use) a particular metal to produce a certain effect. Each Misting’s ability is confined to the use of one metal, and each metal has a particular culture that goes along with it. Those who can burn pewter for enhanced strength, for example, are called Pewterarms or Thugs, and tend to be used as security, soldiers or bodyguards.
  Then there’s the Mistborn – Vin and Kelsier, and a few rare others. Mistborn can burn all the metals, and are essentially superhuman. Through clever use of steel and iron, they can almost fly, and their strength and endurance is unparalleled. I won’t reveal too much about the other magic systems, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy, as they’re integral to the plot.   

In the Final Empire, Kelsier’s gang overthrow the Final Empire. In the Well of Ascension, his crew is left to govern the fractured nation which has been thrown into frightened disarray after the loss of their familiar, if tyrannical, leader. In the third book, The Hero of Ages, the series comes to a climax, with the omnipresent force of Ruin threatening to destroy the world. I’d like to make a quick comment on the ending, also; many readers seem unhappy with the way that Sanderson ended his enthralling trilogy. I, however, felt that the ending was excellent. Every loose end was tied up, details that were briefly mentioned throughout the first two novels were revealed as being vitally important, and characters’ storylines were resolved in unpredictable, yet fitting, ways. Sanderson’s subtle use of an unreliable narrator provided a twist that resonated with me for days after finishing the book.

If you’re a fantasy reader: read this book. You won’t have read anything else like it before, and the characterisation is out of this world.

If you liked The Hunger Games and are looking for your next series: read The Mistborn. With a damaged but hardy female protagonist, a dystopian setting and an upcoming apocalypse, The Mistborn has many similar themes to Suzanne Collins’ successful trilogy. It is much more sophisticated, both in language and content, but I think fans of the Hunger Games will appreciate it nonetheless.

If you don’t read fantasy: read The Final Empire. It’s not your traditional fantasy book, and the qualities that often put people off fantasy (one-dimensional characters, predictable plot, unnecessarily complicated magic systems and made-up languages) don’t apply. You never know, it might convert you. The Final Empire is quite resolved in and of itself, so take a chance and read it as a stand-alone, and continue on with the trilogy if you enjoy it.

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy gets an undisputable five out of five stars from me.

After finishing the Mistborn, I immediately purchased Sanderson’s other works, some on my e-reader and some in hard copy. I’m currently reading Elantris, and plan to move onto The Way of Kings and then Warbreaker. I’m also interested in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, so I may read that in the middle for something different. Other series that I am planning to move onto include the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Brent Week’s Shadow trilogy. I plan to eventually tackle the Wheel of Time, which Brandon Sanderson is currently finishing. I am listening to the first book in audio format, but I’m not particularly committed yet. I’d appreciate your thoughts on what to read next!

Have you read the Mistborn? Do you think you will, now you’ve read my (somewhat rambling) review? Have you read Sanderson’s other works? How do you think they compare? If you’re informed on the topic, how does the Wheel of Time series as a whole compare to Brandon Sanderson’s own works?
Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review: Storm Front (Book 1 of The Dresden Files)

Cool hat, bro. 

Storm Front is the first book in Jim Butcher’s series, The Dresden Files. I thought this book was more than deserving of a review, as it is a highly original and thoroughly entertaining take on what might be loosely be termed urban fantasy.

  The first thing you need to know about this book is that it is essentially a mystery. Yup, that’s right, a good ol’ fashioned whodunit. A prostitute and her patron are executed in a style that would make Jigsaw proud, and the Chicago police are stumped as to how it happened, and who might be behind it. Desperate times call, as they say, for desperate measures, so tough-chick Detective Murphy calls upon her friend Harry Dresden to pick his brains about the whole gruesome situation. Badly in need of the consulting fee that he receives from the police for his work, Harry shows up, and becomes embroiled in a situation which is as warped as it is dangerous.

  Storm Front is told in first person, from Harry’s perspective, allowing readers to get to know him quite well. If I were to situate him in pop-culture terms, I’d describe him as being comically cynical like Hugh Laurie’s House, but ultimately altruistic in nature, despite his constant sarcasm …a little bit like Dr Venkman from Ghostbusters. He is a wizard – but definitely not of the Hogwarts variety. The magic in Dresden’s world stems more from the arcane and occult than it does from fairy-tales and castles, and somehow that serves to make the book all the more gripping. It also works quite well with the noir-like, hard-boiled detective fiction theme. I found it interesting that magic, as Dresden uses it, is openly acknowledged by society as a legitimate force, although it’s regarded by many as something to be wary of. It was one of several things about the novel that reminded me of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, in that it’s similar to the way in which vampires “came out of the coffin” and are treated as a warily accepted part of regular society.
  I also enjoyed the many aspects of the magic system that were casually thrown into the story. For example, a pizza-loving fairy called Took and the lecherous talking skull named Bob, who stores Harry’s information for him, made me laugh out loud at times. I suspect that there’s much more about the magic world, the NeverNever that Harry refers to rather obliquely throughout Storm Front, and the White Council who police the use of magic, that will be revealed in later books. In the same way, I imagine that Harry’s past will be explored in greater detail throughout the series.

I loved the uniquely stylised magic system that Harry operates within, and the way that it was juxtaposed with his mundane “real-life” problems, like paying rent. I was also drawn into the actual murder mystery, particularly in the second half of the book. This is a novel which does not take itself too seriously – something that some fantasy authors are certainly guilty of. Storm Front is a highly entertaining read, but I didn’t feel the need to move straight onto the next book immediately. As a relatively short novel, it was an excellent buffer between major fantasy series’. Although I have now moved on to the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s acclaimed Mistborn series, I do plan to return to The Dresden Files at a later time. I give it three and a half talking skulls, and an enthusiastic thumbs-up.  

Have you read The Dresden Files? What are your thoughts on the rest of the series? Or, alternatively, do you think you will read it, having read this review?