REVIEW: ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ by Neil Gaiman

      Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

       8 out of 10  

      My friends have been trying to get me into Neil Gaiman for a while. Good Omens, which he co-authored with Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite books. I eventually tried American Gods and hated it. Don’t get me wrong, the premise is great, I loved his ideas and his world building but the plot kind of disappeared at a few points during it and I found the characterisation woeful. I find it hard to believe that the main character, Shadow, after just being released from prison, finding he has nowhere to go and his wife and best friend had just died, wouldn’t have an emotional reaction.

But my friends persisted and one decided I should read his short stories, that’d be good back door into his world. As exams were coming up and I never have the time or concentration during exams to read a novel I agreed.

And it was excellent. Absolutely amazing, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time in fact. It’s difficult to review each story independently because it could go on forever but I’ll just list a few of my favourites.

1. Snow Glass Apples

A retelling of the Snow white story darker than any Grimm’s fairytale but hugely intelligent and compelling.

2. Nicholas Was

Less than a page long, pure genius and packs more of an emotional punch than I got from all 800 pages of American Gods.

3. When we went to see the end of the world by Dawnie Morningside, age 11 1/4

The end of the world and possibly the end of a marriage through the eyes of an 11-year-old.

4. Murder Mysteries

There’s a murder in heaven that prompts the angel Lucifer to have a think.

5. Chivalry

Very funny story about an old woman who buys the Holy Grail for 30p in a charity shop and Sir Galaad, knight of the round table, shows up on her doorstep.

The whole collection is filled with gems like this, huge variety in the content and a lot of thought has gone into the ideas, I’m glad I gave him a second chance, I might even try one of the novels next.

* Disclaimer: I never read the poems in this book because I find you have to devote time and thought to poems to really appreciate them and frankly I didn’t have the energy on top of exams – that is the only reason I’ve deducted 2 marks because I don’t know if they’re any good or not but the stories on their own deserve 10 out of 10 *

REVIEW: ‘Ship of Rome’ by John Stack

Ship of Rome: Masters of the Sea 1 by John Stack

7 out of 10

I first read about Stack when an account of him writing this series about the Punic wars and getting a Harper Collins three book deal was published in the Irish Independent. However I’ve been unable to get a copy of it till now due to financial constraints and a woeful lack of historical fiction in my library.

The bad stuff first. This is another author who insists on itlalicising every use of a Latin word which does get very annoying when it happens two or three times on a page. I know it’s a minor complaint but after explaining the difference between a Holplon Shield and a Scutum shield he shouldn’t feel the need to highlight the fact that the word is Latin every time it is used, I know it’s not an English word and he kindly tells us what it means so there’s no need to break flow in a fictional narrative to obey academic conventions.

A love story between Hadria and Atticus is crowbarred into the plot but barely dealt with leaving a skeleton romance to be fleshed out in the sequels. The manner in which he deals with this is extremely clumsy, the counterparts barely meet then subsequently are separated for a long period of time. Upon their reunion they assert their love for each other despite Hadria’s only apparent quality being her beauty and they barely speak to each other up until this point.

Another scene which really got to me is the one in which Fabiola, wife of the senior consul Scipio, seemingly telepathically discovers the traitor in their servants who feeds information on Scipio’s plans to the Junior Consul. The information he passed on, about an enemy fleet  blockading Sicily, was also known by the crew of an entire naval vessel and a maniple of soldiers, none of whom were under orders to keep silent on the matter. They were all in a dock not twelve miles away potentially full of spies and informants, someone there could have easily heard the news and passed it on without Fabiola knowing but she dismisses this out of hand and just ‘knows’ that it was a servant listening on the other side of the door as Scipio told her the news. She even knows which servant because when Scipio called for him he had to do so three times. How could he not be a spy with psychic evidence like that?

There is some criticism of the historical accuracy in this novel but I don’t think it’s especially relevant as this is a historical novel some things have to be embellished, invented or left out for the benefit of the narrative and his writing style.

Some of his characterisation is stereotyped (Scipio, Gisco, Hadria) while some is excellent (Atticus, Duilius, Septimus). His main characters get the most development and detail so the few one-dimensional characters don’t drag down the story too much. His writing style overall is excellent. For a novel mainly concerned with war and strategy he paces it brilliantly, balancing description and action so that one doesn’t outweigh the other and neither is used when unnecessary to the story. For the various battle scenes he chooses a few characters, usually three, with different roles, objectives and allegiances, and flicks between them in short passages so that we get a fully comprehensive picture without any unnecessary overlapping.

Overall the book is an enjoyable read and I will read the rest of the series.

REVIEW: ‘Attila’ by William Napier

"Attila" Book CoverAttila: The end of the world will come from the East by William Napier

2 out of 10

I recently completed a module on the Later Roman Empire called Christians, Barbarians and the Fall of Rome. Roughly 4 months of lectures, study, exams, essay and there was not one mention of Attila the Hun. I decided this was false advertising so I bought The Attila trilogy by William Napier to fill in the gaps hopefully in an enjoyable way.

(small disclaimer before we proceed: I actually really enjoyed tha module, just in case anyone going to Maynooth reads this, it’s taught by Dr. Michael Williams, stick with him through the tedious Christian history because the Barbarian section is brilliant)

It turns out I should have just bought a textbook on the Huns. The first half of the book is extremely tedious. I can normally get through a book this size in a few days, a week at most but this took weeks because I really didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t look forward to reading it at all and couldn’t have cared less what happened to the pompous little Attila. The book deals with Attila’s boyhood in Rome and his attempts to return to his people. The Huns exchanged him with the son of a roman nobleman as insurance, so that both sides would have an incentive to remain allies rather than declaring all-out war on each other.

The first half of the book is crammed with so many ‘facts’, useless information and tidbits about the ancient world that on almost every page I can feel Napier thinking ‘I spent time researching this so I’m damn well going to stick it in, relevant or not.’ This along with extensive descriptions (pages about the food at a feast, or the words of a preacher who’s never mentioned again)  really drag down his story and slow up the pacing. It feels like he’s just stretching it into a trilogy for the sake of tradition, using all this as filler.

However, despite his relying on this infodump more than plot or characterisation for the first half I found myself questioning the reliability of every statement. I understand that when writing historical fiction you have to choose a version of history and stick with it, offering alternative theories just messes up narrative continuity, but I feel he is taking liberties all the same. Allowing for the fact that he wrote this in 2005, perhaps dominant theories were different then, it still seems like he got a lot of information about daily life wrong. He is setting up the trilogy for a clash of cultures, Romans freely offer opinions on those barbarian Huns whereas Attila scorns Roman decadence periodically but it all feels extremely forced and over the top. The description of a Roman feast at the start is so over the top indulgent that it felt like it came out of the Satyrica (An ancient novel specifically exaggerating the efforts of freedmen to join the upper classes in order to cast scorn upon this kind of decadence) rather than historical documents where descriptions of a groaning feast table are much more meager. A lot of the characterisation of barbarians by Roman characters is not in line with modern thinking on the ethnography of 4th century Rome but I won’t go on about this because as I said Napier did have to pick a version of history and he seems to have gone with he one that suited his ‘totally opposed cultures’ theme in every way.

His characters are blessed with remarkable foresight and psychic ability. All of them are constantly predicting the future accurately, General Stilicho even refers to the Dark Ages at one point, centuries before they happened and almost 1,000 years before the term was in general use. This foresight is apparent when Attila gets into a street fight in Rome as a twelve year old, he accidentally kills a man and all the onlookers see him as a threat, a powerful man, someone who they should soon fear rather than a young lost boy whose arrogance has just been cut back to size when he makes this mistake. Later an entire Roman century is more than happy to give up their lives to defend the hostage boy. Attila is fourteen at this point and with no opportunity in the two years to train, no mention of him having any knowledge of how to use a sword he is able to fight alongside them. From snivelling boy after accidentally killing someone to fierce warrior, and indeed one of the only survivors of the battle, is a little hard to believe without at least some mention of practicing. Genetics seem to be doing all his work for him.

I found there were inconsistencies in tone, language and technique in the novel. Archaic seeming language, almost attempting to imitate Virgil and ancient historical chroniclers frequently gives way to modern phrases, slang and curses with an extremely jarring effect. Because he relies so heavily of fact for most of the novel an extremely mystical scene with an old woman who turns into a young girl, can read their thoughts and induce visions seems extremely out of place and almost irrelevant. One thing in particular that annoyed me was his insistence on italicising any word or phrase that was not in English. He doesn’t have to follow the academic standard when writing fiction, it’s a minor thing that breaks flow but I found is especially annoying when characters were speaking. What’s even more annoying is when a character says a Latin phrase and then the english translation in the one breath. They’re supposed to be speaking in Latin al the time anyway so why would they need to translate the words for each other? I would have preferred if the narrator provided the translation or if it was all in English because the use of Latin, Celtic and Hunnish words seems like another instance of him doing too much research and being determined to show it off.

However the book picks up a lot towards the end, for one reason or another he seems to run out of things to say and there are very few written sources on the Huns so once he gets all his lecturing out of the way the story isn’t too bad I’m willing to forgive the aspects of his style I didn’t enjoy so long as the story becomes much faster paced and as I can’t afford a different book on Attila now I’ll continue with the series.