It’s the end of July, and sadly, Camp Nanowrimo has been a failure this time round. Even with shaving my usual target in half as I knew I’d be away, I’ve only managed about half of it. It was a combination of losing my way with the story and being heavily distracted by real life – real life which, sadly, has left me feeling a bit down in the dumps in the final days of July and not terribly compelled to write fiction.
On the bright side, I’ve just got back from a nice time in Italy, which gave me ample opportunity to catch up on my reading. Managed to finish four books, so here are some mini-reviews for them.
The Iron King – Maurice Druon
This is the first book of the (translated from French) Accursed Kings series, which George R R Martin cites as a big inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire. This is, however, a historical novel, set in France in 1314 during the reign of King Philip IV. It’s easy to see what Martin was talking about, as the story is carried by political intrigue: succession issues, adultery, backstabbing, scheming, and trying to hold a kingdom together.
There’s nothing really exceptional about The Iron King, but it’s still a very good read. The story and the pacing are excellent, and the characters are well fleshed out and human: for example, it would be easy to portray King Philip simply as a cold and greedy ruler (he’s just come off a long and vicious persecution of the Knights Templar) but he is instead presented as a more conflicted figure who’s quite reasonable in some situations, and in his own words, wants to be both loved and feared. Like the last book I reviewed, The Long Earth, it’s the first part of a bigger story; unlike The Long Earth, it stands perfectly well by itself, and sets the scene well enough to make you want to move onto the next book. Rating: 4/5.
A Clash of Kings – George R R Martin
From the inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire to the actual A Song of Ice and Fire: this is the second book of the series, continuing the war for the Iron Throne that commenced at the end of the first book – and I’m loath to say much more in case someone who hasn’t read the first book is reading this.
The problem with having watched Game of Thrones (I’m currently waiting for the Season 4 DVD to come out) before reading this book is that I kept finding myself comparing the book to the show, noting what was different. There were certainly plenty of changes from book to screen, and I felt that most of them were positive ones. Indeed, right now I prefer the show overall: the book has rather too many characters and sub-plots (which it can be hard to get invested in when you don’t spend enough time on them) and strangely, I feel like I got a better feel for the characters in the show.
But really, I should talk about A Clash of Kings on its own merits. Well, as I just said, it’s too crowded with one-note characters and sub-plots (not all of which really go anywhere); and quite a lot happens “off-screen” that you wish you could see more of, which gives the story a somewhat incomplete feel. Some characters’ plotlines are more interesting than others; I found myself going through Jon’s sections quite quickly, for example. However, it’s still a compelling narrative with interesting central characters; the world of Westeros is very detailed and realistically harsh, with interesting snippets of its history here and there; and the story climaxes in a massive battle which is really well-written and exciting. Rating: 3.5/5.
Dolphin Way: Rise of the Guardians – Mark Caney
No, this doesn’t have anything to do with Santa Claus or Jack Frost. In the same fashion as Watership Down, it portrays dolphins as having an intelligent, complex culture unknown to humans. As we come into the story, the dolphins (or ‘zetii’ as they call themselves) are in the middle of a crisis, thanks to humans (‘Walkers’) depleting their food stocks and polluting the ocean. The Guardians referred to in the title are actually the bad guys, who believe that the solution is for bottlenose dolphins to place themselves above all other Zetii and give themselves priority for all resources.
Mark Caney successfully creates a detailed and fascinating culture for the dolphins; though it’s a little hard making sense of their vocabulary at first (for the most part, exposition is integrated neatly into the story), their unique values and ways gradually come through. The ways that the dolphins view humans is interesting and appropriately uncomfortable at times; the conservation message of the book is strong and effective. While much of the things seen in the story seem to fit with dolphins’ natural behaviour, I would have liked a bit more exploration of the dolphins’ darker sides that have been more recently studied in the real world (e.g. killing porpoises for no logical reason, leading some scientists to suggest they’re doing it for fun).
On the other hand, the story is problematic in that it doesn’t feel very original: the Guardians basically seem to be non-human Nazis, which I’ve already seen in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. (There’s that word again!) Some of the characters are a bit weak and cliché, and there’s at least one twist that a sufficiently savvy reader will see coming a long way off. Still, the whole thing’s worth checking out for dolphin lovers, or indeed most animal lovers in general. Rating: 3/5.
The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith
The second of Robert “Rowling” Galbraith’s crime novels sees private eye Cormoran Strike and his plucky sidekick Robin initially setting out to investigate the disappearance of author Owen Quine, only for the man to turn up dead, and in a very messy fashion. It turns out Quine’s latest book was filled with less-than-flattering portrayals of the people he knew – so which one, if any of them, sorted out their grievance through murder?
As a mystery story, this one is pretty average, on about the same level as the last book, The Cuckoo’s Calling: it keeps you guessing and you want to find out what happens, but it’s not so compelling that I was seizing every moment to keep reading in my desperation. In addition, there’s rather too many details to the plot and it becomes hard to keep track of everything. I still like Rowling’s prose style, though; and as with previous books I’ve read, I was interested in the use of the writing industry as a background – an area, obviously, that the author knows all about.
Cormoran Strike is a good hero for a crime novel, much better than some others I’ve read: he’s got plenty of layers and traits that make him far from generic, and even unconventional in many ways. The other characters in the book are fine, though I did lose some patience with Robin’s fiancée, who spends most of the book looking like the clichéd unreasonable nuisance who’s just there to cause some conflict and eventually get dumped (though he does get a bit better towards the end). Overall, like Rowling’s last two books, good but not great. Rating: 3.5/5.