Short Story Sunday: ‘Zombie’ by Chuck Palahniuk

So I thought I’d bring short story Sunday back from the dead (hence the zombie theme). I really enjoyed analysing short fiction in a way that I don’t have the time or space to do with longer fiction here and I’m struggling with two short pieces I’m writing at the moment so this might help get me in the right mindframe – spark something off so to speak. I’m not quite sold on Palahniuk. Fight Club is one of my favourite films, I’ll watch it again and again and again and again and…. the book is as good as the movie, which is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of it. I read Invisible monsters which was good but had some really sickening moments and I read haunted which had an amazing premiss that just fell flat and ultimately got quite tedious.

Click the image to go to the story

This story wasn’t really about zombie’s like I hoped (you know the way sometimes you’re just in the mood for the undead?), but nothing’s ever straightforward with this guy. Instead it’s about a new craze amongst teens and young adults to attach a defibrillator to their temples and shock themselves into idiocy. It’s kind of a painless but irreversible lobotomy. That way they don’t have to deal with the pressures of modern life, they end up with terrible jobs and are completes morons and simpletons but they’re happy. Rather than zombies traditionally hunting for brains and searching for brains to eat these guys are running away from brains, running from the pressures of everyday life and from the tragedies in the world and having to make decisions and take on responsibility and deal with things. I’d be lying if I said that kind of escape isn’t occasionally attractive.

Plenty of Palahniuk’s recurring themes also show up here – the dual destruction of the body and society echoing each other as well as the man child and infantile adults trying to recapture their youth as a way of rejecting society.

The ending of the story is a lot more hopeful and mature than I’ve come to expect from this man and to be honest I’m not sure if I liked it. The tone is not as rebellious as some of his other work and it seems almost like a lament for that kind of pigheaded rebellion for the sake of rebellion. It was missing something but overall it’s a good story with a good ending. The major problem with the story is defibrillators don’t work that way.  They won’t shock unless they detect specific heart patterns and (according to brief internet research) basically the entire premiss is flawed. So while it’s a good story, shocking your temples with a defibrillator just can’t happen (never mind surviving as a happy moron to tell the tale)

Notable Lines: ‘They continue to be young and hot but they no longer worry about the day when they won’t be. It’s suicide but it’s not.’

Short Story Sunday: ‘The Blind Chinese Soldiers’ by Hirabayashi Taiko

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

I haven’t read any long Japanese literature. It’s only ever been poems and short stories. I’ve seen a lot of their cartoons, films and played the games though. ‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’ is the most striking story I found in this little gem of a collection.

The author is a woman who was writing at a time when both Japanese women writers and working class writers were beginning to distinguish themselves. By all accounts she was incredibly intelligent, very politically active and had a very tough life – she suffered from tuberculosis, cancer and her only child died from malnutrition. Despite this her prose is very measured and avoids the over-the-top flowery sentimentality that would be easy to slip into.

‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’  is set in Japan near the end of World War Two and while much more understated than the obvious comparison that’s part of the point. The whole country was devastated by the war yet very little information was available. The story is set in a train station and as the protagonist is waiting to board his train a lot of Japanese policemen arrive and it turns out that the train is occupied by both Prince Takamatsu and almost 500 Chinese prisoners of war. These soldiers have been blinded, most likely by experimentation and they are lead off the train and treated very roughly by the Japanese escort.

Stop what you’re doing. Go watch this now. Bring tissues.

People stand and gawk but ultimately are more concerned about their own personal tragedies than the larger problems of the country. The train is a great metaphor for this as people come and go, have brief moments of connections and then forget, yet they are all connected through the train of carriages.

There is massive diversity in this collection but this story is so brief – much like the encounter it depicts – so pared back and raw, that it is one of my favourites.

Notable Lines: All of them half-closed their eyes as if it were too bright, and tears were dripping from every eye. It was certain that every one of them was blind.

REVIEW: My Summer Reads

So I recently spent a week abroad. I don’t do so good on sun holidays because I burn easily enough in Ireland and I like doing stuff instead of lying down, which I do quite frequently at home for free. Prior to leaving I was told I could only bring five books to keep me going because the bags would be too heavy, they’d cost extra, I’d make someone else carry them, blah blah blah. So I brought four books and my kindle (fight the system!). Here are some micro-reviews of the ones I read.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

13147230This is a Pratchett’s first foray into sci-fi since he wrote Strata back in 1981. It is about parallel universes and the travel between them. Pratchett and Baxter manage to get around the complicated confusing plots of certain other authors I could mention by making these worlds uninhabited by humans. Our earth is a freak or ‘Joker’ earth where humans evolved. Across the Long Earth sentience is quite rare but there are lots of interesting versions of the world out there and the absence of humans lets the authors explore more interesting topics, such as what happens once resources become infinite? The technology to travel, or ‘step’ to these other earths is very very cheap. What happens when anyone can get gold or land or anything they need right next door for free? And next door to that, and that… The book ends on a hell of a cliffhanger though so while I’m waiting for the next one I think I’ll have to read more of this Baxter guy.

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve meant to read more of Palahniuk since I read Fight Club. Marla Singer is more messed up in the book than she is in the film but she doesn’t hold a candle to Shannon McFarland. Invisible Monsters deals with a supermodel who becomes severly disfigured and her various methods for dealing (or failing to deal) with both this and her pre-existing insecurities. There are plenty of twists and funny moments, particularly with Shannon’s parents. The book deals a lot with reinvention and plays with identity and gender – particularly with transgender characters and the hyper-sexualisation of the modelling world. Another major theme is self-destruction and self-mutilation. Because of her deformity she is quite literally the silent protagonist. It’s no Fight Club but definitely worth a read (particularly the remix version) .

WARNING: I can take a lot of gore in books – not so much in films, but in books usually nothing is too gruesome for me – and there’s a scene in this book that made me physically ill. I had to stop reading get some fresh air and cancel my plans for the evening. Not for the faint hearted.

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard

This one was a bit of a struggle. The premise was great: global warming has been accelerated exponentially due to solar flares and the equator has become uninhabitable. The book follows a team of scientists at the borders of the uninhabitable zone studying the ecology and trying to find a way to delay or at least document the advance of the floods. This is hard sci-fi and is very well written for the first half. The narrator is compelled by this drowning world and the book has quite a few Heart of Darkness moments as the environment’s devolution parallels that of the characters. However the imagery is endless (there are only so many ways to describe a lagoon before it gets boring) and while beautifully written the plot stagnates at points. He spends quite a lot of time hammering home his themes as well which makes the already introspective character a bit too detached for me. I reckon if it had been told in the first person he could have avoided most of these pitfalls. I stopped in the middle to read other books so when events accelerated near the end I found it hard to get into again. But it’s only 170 pages long so definitely worth a try.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

So after all the hype around Slaughterhouse Five I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t a war novel. The Western World obsesses over WWII to the neglect of all other tragedies so I definitely wasn’t thrilled to be reading yet another book about it. I’ve read a lot of excellent holocaust narratives and this one starts out very blandly. The first chapter is a bit tedious but then the time travel and alien abduction starts. This has nice parallels with Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil as both stories try to discover new ways to talk about trauma and the answer unanimously seems to be evasion and surrealism. It’s an excellent book that plays with narrative conventions. Now I finally know where the phrase ‘So it goes’ comes from and why so many people get it as a tattoo. Vonnegut repeats this phrase to provoke every emotion under the sun in reaction to death, highlighting how omnipresent it is.

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

I only got one chapter into this on the plane home so my opinion is still pending. But so far it’s pretty interesting. Standard enough sci-fi opening (until a bit at the very end of the chapter which makes me think this one’s going to be pretty low on the Mohs scale) but told in a very compelling way. If it’s any indication of the way the rest of the book is written I’ll stick with him for the long haul.

Game of Thrones Fatigue

So Season 2 is drawing to a close. What have we learned? Peter Dinklage is awesome (not that we needed to be reminded), this season is much less anchored without Sean Bean, and boobies solve everything.

Sean Bean Death Statistics

When will the madness end?

Awhile ago I wrote a post about prostitution in the first few books basically trying to come up with a possible explanation for the sheer volume of violent sex scenes, however, try as I might, I couldn’t come up with an explanation for the addition of even more violent sex scenes (almost exclusively against women) in the TV show other than more boobs = higher ratings = more money to roll around in. Sex may sell but the lack of male nudity is particularly vexing, at least balance it out HBO!

At the time I was planning to write a post reviewing each episode of season 2, I even mentioned it in the comments, because I was still caught up in the excitement of the New Big Thing. Way back in the distant past of last summer I was all for Game of Thrones (or GoT as all the cool cats are calling it). It was exam season so in an attempt not to study I turned to TV for a distraction. Actual real life TV, not internet TV (desperate measures for desperate times).

I watched all of season 1 as it aired and immediately bought the first four books off amazon. I read them all over the summer, the per cent read on my kindle crept up ever so slowly. I took breaks to read other books. Had one tantrum after a certain event and stopped reading for a while, got bored on several occasions and took holidays from Westeros. Then my cousin kindly lent me Dance with Dragons. I couldn’t hack it though, reading it in bed was a dangerous past time, one slip and I could have broken my nose. So I got the kindle edition instead. Some day soon murders will be committed with the hardback edition and bloodied copies will be held up in plastic evidence bags in courtrooms (just how George would have wanted it).

Overall the whole process of discovering TV show, getting really excited, reading all the books and getting sick of the whole thing took about 5 months(ish).

Now that push has come to shove as it were, I can’t bring myself to review each season 2 episode individually. I’ve tried watching and can’t. A few minutes into the second episode I found myself looking wistfully at the ironing and started tackling that instead. This is the only way they can keep me interested, if I watch them while doing something marginally less interesting; the flat has never been cleaner! I think I’m suffering from overexposure. After a summer long binge on slowly declining prose I’m sick of it (quite literally, in bed with a throat infection today, maybe I’m allergic).

The problems I have with GoT are x-fold (x because I can’t be bothered to count and I reserve the right to add more reasons as more books and episodes are released).

  1. It should have been a trilogy The first two books (in my opinion) are the strongest and the most action packed. Then they get gradually more dragged out as they fall into a wormhole and time is warped so that nothing happens for hundreds of pages. In Dance with Dragons sweet FA happens until the end, and even then, shocking deaths and gritty plot twists are no longer that shocking or gritty the 20th time they happen.
  2. Too much repetition this is really a sub-complaint from number 1 as I believe this is a consequence of the series being stretched over 7 books rather than a nice neat trilogy.  In every book one character is travelling across a continent. Seen one seen ’em all. I don’t mind reading about the few interesting things that happen on these journeys but there’s only so many campfires and tired voyagers I can take before it all gets a bit samey. A lot of stuff repeats itself in the series but I’ll stick with this example because (MINOR SPOILER INCOMING) by the time Brienne sets out on her journey to find Sansa (one of her many treks across the continent) the trope gets completely absurd. We know even before she begins that the whole thing is futile because, by virtue of Sansa’s POV we know Brienne is heading in the complete wrong direction! The whole way along we know that these chapters are pretty much pointless. Now semi-interesting stuff happens at the end of Brienne’s plotline but the entire thing drags out for ages beforehand telling us virtually nothing. Her whole plotline could have been compressed without loosing anything (/SPOILER)
  3. Gritty gets dull without substance The many deaths are no longer shocking. They get fairly predictable and they don’t stick. We know it’s coming so we’ve gotten over it before it happens and quite often once a character is killed they’ll be back later. A quick guide to GoT deaths: if you don’t actually see a character die – as in there is no way they can physically recover and the viewpoint character sees them actually take their last breath – then they’re probably not dead. And if they definitely are dead I’m going to bet by book 7 there’ll be a 50% chance they all come back as white walkers. It’s hard to mourn characters once you recognise this pattern. The last time a death surprised me was (one of the many) at the red wedding. Gritty ‘realism’ can only take you far. If your prose and characters can’t carry it then it becomes a gimmick like everything else and I believe Martin’s characters are less and less capable of picking up the slack. Also, having read a lot more of the books than I had when I wrote that last post, I no longer stand by my vehement defense of Martin’s use of sex as realistic, plot relevant and useful to explore characters. 

    A concise summary of books 1-5

  4. Too much is kept behind the scenes In a series where incresingly little happens – or as a former GM of mine said ‘events happen, but the general plot just trundles along at a snails pace‘ – Martin can’t afford to be coy and maddeningly obscure about absolutely everything. I’ll never complain that nothing happens in Westeros, I just get angry at reading more and more details of feast preparations, when these feasts largely serve as exposition to try and get me to memorise thousands and thousands of minor characters, while at the same time so much is actually happening just never described. Events at the tower of joy are only ever hinted at but in away that make them seem pivotal. Too much exposition (and sexposition) spaces out the interesting stuff until he finally adds insult to injury in Dance with Dragons when fascinating, exciting and plot essential events finally happen during a feast in Winterfell (when *spoiler* eats *spoiler*) and it’s barely referred to! The meal is described in the usual boring detail and it was only afterwards on the Westeros forums I learned all the details. Now one or two events like this are fine. This subtlety encourages speculation and keeps his fan base loyal and adds some much-needed depth. I don’t give a fiddler’s what they eat or wear but I want more than occassional hints at the bigger picture.
  5. We’ve Stagnated I’ve already gone on for longer than I intended but by the end of book 5 most characters haven’t moved very far and don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon. The next few books will either be incredibly exciting as he plays catch up to get all the characters in roughly the same place and to fullfill all the many themes he’s been setting up and plot events he foreshadowed then ignored. Or else they will continue in the way they have been going: with very little happening on-screen/page and a hasty wrap-up crammed into the last hundred pages.

Prostitution in Game of Thrones

There has been much criticism of Game of Thrones, especially of the TV series. It’s been accused of being sexist, racist, sexist, too violent, sexist and sexist again. Now most of this critisim has been levelled at the HBO adaptation so I’ve studiously ignored it but I was at a friend’s house the other day and she said she’d just finished reading the first book. While she thought it was good, it was far too sexist for her tastes. I challenged her on this and her response ran somehitng like ‘Oh the prostitution! it’s everywhere! so many prostitutes, is nobody safe?!’ only less hysterical.

So i decided it’s time to weigh in. I’m half-way through a storm of Swords part 2 so this will only really about the books up until there, not the TV show as that’s covered in more detail elsewhere.

SPOILERS AHOY!

The show added a lot of prostitution that wasn’t really in the original but I found the original quite feminist. Look at characters like Arya Stark, Daenerys Targareyn or Brienne Whatshername, especially in the later books, and it’s clear that there a numerous incidents of strong powerful women being progressive and assertive and all that good stuff in a world that doesn’t necessairly cater for this.

The negative first: Yes there is quite a lot of sex in the books. So? sex on it’s own is not a problem and I never felt that it was used gratuitously. Sexuality is used usually for plot points (i.e. when Sansa gets her period she’ll be forced to marry and sleep with Joffrey), to create a specific atmosphere (How creeped out were you when Robert Arryn was still breastfeeding at age 9?), or for character development (see the numerous scenes between Danerys and Drogo). So where does the negative come into it? Yeah, all the prostitutes are women, the men were too busy dying in various wars to branch out into prostitution. There are scenes of sexual domination over women and men often brag about it to other men because that’s what they do in testorone fueled war filled society. But at no point did I feel the narrator was condoning any of this behaviour, the only time sexual objectification of women felt normalised (for me at least) was when a particular character was normalising it. In this way we learned more about that character and his (or her) world view. Yes there are scenes of violent sex but for them not to take place at all would be implausible. Even in modern warfare and modern civilisation sex is a weapon and a tool and rapes occur all the time. In a society that is arguably more violent than ours it just wouldn’t be believable if it didn’t take place. G. R. R. Martin never claims that this is a desirable state of being.

The positive : As I mentioned there’s strong women (I might cover that in more detail some other time), the sex isn’t always a bad thing, and the prostitutes aren’t crawling out of the walls. It’s more the references to them that are everywhere. Frequently men are bragging about sexual exploits that probably never happened. Again we are learning about the characters themselves, this kind of dialogue doesn’t necessarily denigrate the women in and of itself. In fact there are occasions where it makes more of a show of the man who said it. But what about the poor prostitutes? I hear you ask.  Don’t they get a voice at all? Isn’t pushing them into the background as merely a conversation starter for men just as bad as sexually objectifying them? Well it would be if that was what was happening but it isn’t. In a world dominated by swords chivalry and patriarchy many women use their sexuality as an extremely effective weapon. Look at Cersei Lannister, her incestuous relationship with Jaime was born from love but also allows her to ensure the succession of the throne is entirely in Lannister hands. She was wed to a man she did not love and rather than weep and become a broken woman she took control of her sex life, refused to have his children and proceeds to gain more and more control over King Robert, then King Joffrey as the series progresses. She is effectively Queen of the land. Look at Daenerys Targareyn, how she grows as a character through her self affirming marriage with Drogo. One of the first positive acts in her journey to become Queen is loosing her virginity. Both sold as brides, virtually prostituted to gain power for their male relatives, yet they turn the situation around and claim the power for themselves. The Game of Thrones has room for Queens as well as Kings, and these Queens are just as well equipped using their sexuality in nefarious manipulative and even joyous life affirming ways. Even when it boils down to the prostitutes themselves Daenarys is virtually sold to Khal Drogo, Chataya is a pretty smooth business lady, Alayaya is shown as intelligent and kind, teaching herself to read, even Shae becomes a very important character despite some uncertainty over her motives in being with Tyrion (He pays her wages after all). The fact that Tyrion’s first wife was a prostitute turns out to be hugely important to his character development but again, I did not feel that the girl was necessarily portrayed as beaten down and exploited. She got paid for what she did and paid well, she chose to enter into it and Martin even tells s the story through his voice so that the violent sexual domination that followed is more of a psychological of profile of Tyrion’s inferiority complex than anything else. The girl is removed from the violence itself in this detached account, the narrative did not revel in it.

The setting : Once Upon A Time Tolkien became the god of all that is fantasy literature. And it was then decreed that all fantasy can only take place in a homogenous middle ages European society with magic thrown in. I think it was Ben Yahtzee Crowshaw who blamed Tolkien for the fact that the phrase ‘Standard Fantasy Setting’ can now be uttered without the slightest hint of irony. I mentioned the setting once or twice earlier in the post and I’d like to analyze it here. Despite all the ideology of fantasy as  genre where anything can happen it still has to be believable. That’s why, when author’s throw in tropes like magic, they tend to set their stories in a recognisable place where humans also believed in magic. hence the domination of the medieval from where people legitimately believed this stuff could happen. Along with that belief comes the limited opportunities for women etc.

I want to look at how this specifically functions in Game of Thrones though. Martin’s book is, above all else, political. it’s a character driven struggle for power and dominance over the rest of the land. To fit in all the violence and intrigue and to tie in with what most fantasy fans believe it makes sense that they’re fighting for is a Kingship. Now in a land like this the army and formation fighting is necessary. History has shown that facing this kind of weaponry armour, arms, stamina etc. are required, it takes a hardy bunch of lads. Women genetically speaking are not predisposed to develop the kind of muscle necessary and in societies like this they were not often given the chance to, more on that in a minute. (However Martin includes several female warriors and leaders: Danaerys, Brienne, The free folk beyond the wall, the leader of one of Tyrion’s wild hordes is a woman – So Martin does accept that women are just as good as men on the battle field before anyone gets angry about that). The men dominate in the ranks however, and frankly that’s because most of them are going to get killed. When all the men die the population needs to replenish itself so that’s one major reason why women are largely absent from the frontline in this series, logically speaking you need more women than men to reproduce quickly. Also in a society that has so many wars and conflicts that at this point I’m beginning to lose track, it’s natural that the vast majority of that societies’ wealth will be spent on wars. therefore, no universities. The careers for the common people are limites to trades. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, that sort of thing. A lot of these trades involve quite heavy physical labour that quite frankly is difficult and dangerous after about the sixth month of pregnancy, why are you pregnant? Oh yeah, because everybody died. However some women do not become attached or tied down, and even the ones that do often have careers in this world. How many landladies, female innkeepers, blacksmith, cooks  etc. are scattered throughout the books? Some of the women who are prostitutes are clearly doing it because they want to, look at Chataya’s in the later books.

Yes there is a lot of prostitution and un-consensual sex but in a series based around a throne, therefore an aristocracy, women are valued for breeding, preserving lines, purity etc. With purely logical reasoning it’s no surprise that the story Martin set out to write requires women’s sexuality has paramount importance to the plot. It simply wouldn’t be believable that a land with this kind of psyche wouldn’t have prostitutes. I think Martin handles his female characters admirably and for me, even the prostitutes have become some of the most memorable characters of the series.

Postscript: Let us remember that there are no equal opportunities for men in Westeros either. I have yet to hear someone saying that it’s sexist that all the men are conscripted into armies, sent off to war and killed before most of them get through puberty.

Kindle

Well the stars have aligned, Mars has come into cojunction with Venus and I am suddenly and unexpectedly in possession of some money.

I won a quiz about Bioshock Infinite on the Escapist Magazine, the prize was $100 dollar gift voucher for Amazon.com. My internet service provider, for reasons that I’m not going to question, has decided that I only owe them €30, not €100, and i received a long awaited tax refund.

So what to do with this newfound wealth? Pay rent? Buy groceries? God no, nothing so mundane and practical.

I bought an Amazon Kindle. I think I’m in love with it.

First things first, if you’re buying from Ireland you have to buy off amazon.com, NOT amazon.co.uk. A minor thing but I think it could do with being clearer on the website. I’d also recommend buying a cover. This one is ridiculously overpriced but I like that it has a little light in it, it means I can read late at night without annoying my boyfriend. It’s also a little bit bulky but the kindle can easily be removed and even with the cover it’s still lighter and smaller than a lot of paperbacks.

The screen is probably my favourite bit so far. I can read for hours and because of the e-ink my eyes never get tired. I also regularly read it at the beach over the summer, I could read it in direct sunlight and sand and knocks and bumps don’t seem to damage it at all considering how often I’ve dropped it when I’ve fallen asleep reading.

I’ve downloaded the kindle programme for my computer as well, I love whispersync. Whatever page I’ve read to or whatever new books I’ve bought on the kindle automatically link to any other devices you’ve downloaded kindle to. I also love being able to buy a book through the kindle and have it within minutes. No need for a computer or organising programme like iTunes.

Getting the first chapter of books free is a great idea, I’d normally read them in the bookshop before I buy but this is just more convenient. I read the fist chapter of The City and the City by China Mieville, decided I didn’t like it enough to spend money on it and that way I got to try it without actually spending anything (I have shelves of books I’ve started but got bored of).

I like that you can highlight passages and write your own notes in it. I’ve downloaded a few books for college and research as well as plenty of pdfs so this really helps. The feature where you can link passages to facebook and twitter seems good, as do the audiobooks, but I haven’t used either.

Books overall are cheaper on it. A Song of Ice and Fire was selling in my local Easons for €11 a book (which would make €55 considering book three was published in two parts). I got the whole thing on kindle for $20, which is €13. Anything out of copyright is also free so I’ve been working my way through the Sherlock Holmes books without spending a cent. Give me a few more months and the kindle will have virtually paid for itself.

Considering how big e-publishing is now I reckon and e-reader is a must for any author.

However, one of the best bits for me, possibly even better than the screen, is the weight. I have permanent back damage from carrying an insanely heavy school bag in and out to school, by 6th year it averaged at two stone a day. As a result I now have several disks in my back damaged irreparably, one technically has to be removed but the operation is too risky and complicated because my ribcage is in the way. So to be able to carry 1,000’s of books in my bag and still have it weigh only a few ounces is brilliant.

The cons (Because there’s always cons)

Some books I’ve downloaded seem to have formatting errors. In the Game of Thrones series long passages will be justified then it will suddenly switch and be left-aligned for awhile. In Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things there are large gaps between every paragraph, just blank spaces. And I’ve noticed quite a few spelling errors across different books. Hopefully this will improve as editors take e-books more seriously and they get more popular.

Another problem is not every book is available on kindle. I was looking for the left hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin and Amazon didn’t have it. This happened with some of my more obscure college books as well. I had to download LeGuin off a different site and reformat it using Calibre. It was only a minor inconvenience though, one or two extra steps and the programme is free. To balance it out a lot of people are only publishing e-books now, so there’s plenty of books on kindle that you can’t get in bookshops.

Overall I thoroughly recommend it, 5 stars.

REVIEW: Attila: The Gathering of the Storm by William Napier

"Attila: The Gathering Storm" Book CoverAttila: The Gathering of the Storm by Wiliam Napier

2 out of 5

So this is marginally better than the first in the series. It deals with Attila’s return from exile and his gathering of the various Hun tribes to march against Rome.

That’s about it. Not much else happens in the plot. In my last review I said that his major problem was trying to squeeze in as many facts about Rome as possible to the detriment of pacing or characterisation. This problem all but disappeared when Attila returned to the Huns, the only information we have about the Huns is from a Roman perspective, we have no sources from their point of view. So for the last 50 pages or so the story really picked up because he didn’t have hundreds of facts to show off. This installment is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Huns and if far better for it. My favourite character, the Hun shaman and token madman Little Bird, is much more prominent here. The story opens up with a lot more action, Attila usurping King Ruga, and there is some mystery about how exactly he intends to get his revenge on Rome. He also displays a sense of humour, largely absent from the previous book, in the character of Little Bird, in occassional jokes amongst the men and in ironically scorning novels as ‘arrant nonsense that openly delights the unlettered multitude ‘ (78). (Novels were considered pretty trashy in the ancient world)

And then he ruins it all with a 60 page digression summing up what’s been happening in Rome in the past thirty years. 60 pages! It just goes on and on. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he had actually told it as a story but he skims over nearly everything, providing a summary so that we never actually get to know more than a cardboard version of any character.

This tendency to summarise rather than involve the reader in the moment, I feel, is Napier’s biggest problem. His narrator for the series is Priscus of Panium, the only historical account surviving from this period. As such he attempts to imitate the ancient style of historical chronicles, which frankly can get pretty boring. We have very little of the internal deliberations of characters, rather their actions are summarised and padded out with endless description.

Once he returns to the Huns this description is everywhere and I found myself skipping over paragraphs and sometimed even pages only to have missed nothing but a three page monologue on some opposing barbarians tattoos and topknot. He is very good at describing battles and the acts of cruelty common in ancient histories (But the battles are much more engaging). Overall there is far too much description that doesn’t add to anything and there is still not enough plot. The book could have done with more editing, especially to get rid of errors in continuity such as Attila berating a man for shooting a horse when they attack a column, then his very next order is to shoot the horses. Similarly Priscus applauds the woman Athenais for boldly defending herself in court full of men and refusing the emperor’s offer, then condemns women who are audacious enough to sit at the table with their husband and his friends. Also his characters occassionally quote Shakespeare which gets kind of annoying condidering the story is set 1100 years before Shakespeare. I’d say Napier didn’t realise he was doing this, some half remmebered quote from school just seemed to fit the situation he was writing about but it is a bit jarring when barbarians and Romans say things like ‘it is an honour that I dream not of’ (Romeo and Juliet) and describe jealousy as a ‘green-eyed monster’ (Othello).

His characters clairvoyance from the previous book is replaced with a remarkable passivity in this one. They follow Attila unquestioningly. He returns after a thirty year exile for treason, murders their King in his own tent and declares himself ruler and everyone just nods along. He defeats the Kutriger Huns in battle, a people Napier repeatedly describes as filled with bloodlust and extremely cruel, but rather than seek vengeance they join him. He slaughters hundreds of their warriors in battle and threatens their women and children and then the Kutriger force of thousands bow down to Attila’s 80 remaining men. It is for these reasons that his slight improvements (such as hugely cutting back on infodumps, his sense of humour and his vivid battle scenes) do not make up for the lapses in this story for me.

Overall I didn’t enjoy reading this which made it feel far too long, for anyone wanting to learn about Attila pick up a textbook. I don’t think I’ll read the next one for a long time.

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.