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He nods. He understands. And then he takes my hand and presses his lips against my palm. It feels like fire entering my bloodstream and laying siege to my body. He kisses my wrist, and I am an inferno. He starts to move up my arm, his breath tantalizing, and I almost give in as he pulls me to him.

But instead I step back, cradling my arm to my chest. “Be well,” I tell him because I don’t know how to explain what I really want to say. And then I slip out the window and am covered in snow that instantly douses my skin, which just moments before had been aflame.

Paranormal romance has evolved certain tropes that are in danger of becoming repetitive. Firstly, the whole romance itself has often been perpetuated through a love triangle whose oscillations sustain a series of novels. Secondly the female protagonists have a tendency to either be clumsy, or suffer extreme injuries/physical deprivations. What interests me is that this kind of wish fulfillment fantasy carries echoes of male adventure novels. Bond having to choose between the ‘good girl’ and the bad. Clive Cussler‘s Dirk Pitt receives terrible injuries only to get right back up again and carry on. Are Paranormal Romance books just gender-swapped boys’ own adventures, with all that that implies?

Mary lives with her mother and brother in a community of survivors following a catastrophic event that destroyed civilization. Their memories of the time before are vague and the event itself is simply referred to as ‘The Return’ – when the dead rose and began to feed on the living. These once human creatures are known as the Unconsecrated and for her entire life Mary has lived with the sound of their cries every day, pressed up against the protective fence that surrounds the village. Beyond the fence lies the impenetrable Forest of Hands and Teeth.

When Mary’s mother is killed and her brother disowns her, she is thrown to the mercy of the Sisters, who run the village community. Her only other option would be to marry, but her best friend is to marry the boy she loves Travis and his brother, Harry, who does want her let the Sisters take her from her home. She is alone.

Sister Tabitha attempts to break Mary’s spirit and teach her that the only option is to accept her fate. Instead the young girl continues to find new ways to rebel, despite her punishments. Eventually she discovers a secret that the Sisters and the Guardians, who patrol the village fences, have been hiding. There is another girl in the Cathedral, wearing red, who Mary has never seen before. She is not from the village. Is there another place where life survived? Will she ever, as her mother promised her, see the ocean?

This is a very problematic novel. For a start the ‘romance’ is entirely counter-productive. Sister Tabitha claims that Mary’s headstrong nature will be the doom of the village. As it happens, she is not far wrong. The main character’s insistence on pursuing her own desires are pitched as being liberating, but she is living in the centre of community surrounded on all sides by monsters! Priorities! When survival becomes the most important thing, Mary is still mooning after Travis. More interesting by far is her relationship with her brother Jed, who blames her for their mother’s death. Unfortunately the novel only returns to their conflict near the end, just in time to tie up loose ends before the anticlimactic conclusion.

Mary is simply infuriating, her self-absorption almost justifiable if the reader considers that she must be suffering from colossal trauma given the village’s circumstances. The Unconsecrated themselves are mindless monsters that are simply always there. Their function in the story is to represent an ever-present threat, but beyond that there is nothing of interest about them.

This is a frustrating, tedious novel, that loses its way once the characters themselves become lost in the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

“If the Deathly Hallows really existed, and Dumbledore knew about them, knew that the person who possessed all of them would be master of Death – Harry, why wouldn’t he have told you? Why?”

He had his answer ready.

“But you said it Hermione! You’ve got to find out about them for yourself! It’s a Quest!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I am not a fan of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps that will colour everything I say in a negative light, but despite my opinions on the books I am looking forward to the concluding film. Harry Potter is indisputably a modern-day phenomenon. Any adaptation presents the collaborator with an extraordinary opportunity to tap into a massive audience and perhaps put their own unique spin on then material.

The story opens with the shocking killing of a Hogwarts staff member taken prisoner by the evil Voldemort. His followers, who call themselves Death Eaters, are cowed into submission by the demonstration. The Malfoy family in particular are coming to regret their support of the tyrant, with Lucius left broken by his master’s callousness. Voldemort has discovered that his wand cannot harm Harry Potter and takes Lucius’s to make another attempt to kill the Boy Who Lived.

An opportunity presents itself soon, during an assault on the Order of the Phoenix, whose members including Harry are among the few opponents left standing against the dark wizard. The attack leads to the death of an ally of Harry’s, convincing him that he has to undertake his quest to defeat Voldemort alone. That mission was given to the boy wizard by Dumbledore and in the wake of his death disturbing revelation have begun to shake Harry’s faith in his mentor. Why would this quest to destroy the source of Voldemort’s power, the hidden Horcruxes, be given to a teenage boy? Has he been manipulated into becoming a weapon by the kindly old man he loved so much?

There is a great deal of confusing to-ing and fro-ing in this novel. Harry’s quest serves as much to delay his final confrontation with the now revealed Voldemort as anything, with Rowling‘s introduction of the Deathly Hallows, yet another series of hidden magical items, a further digression. There is also an awful lot of exposition in this book, chiefly concerned with the deceased Dumbledore, who despite being dead persists in reappearing as a ghostly presence throughout the book.

The other point of concern, and this has been a constant for the series, is that Rowling description of Potter’s importance sometimes smacks of Marty Stu-dom. This passage in particular is galling:

Kingsley, I thought you were looking after the Muggle Priminister?” he called across the room.

“He can get along without me for one night,” said Kingsley, “You’re more important.”

It is even more distressing when the narrative’s dogged focus on Harry, who goes into hiding from Voldemort’s forces, means that several dramatic events occur off-camera due to the boy wizard camping out in forests for the best part of a year. For example Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom‘s secret Hogwarts revot sounds like a fantasy-version of Lindsay Anderson’s seminal film If…. but is only referred to in passing.

Still, despite myself I continued turning the pages, eager to learn how the story ends. Yes I find Rowling’s books frustrating to read, but they remain compelling.

‘It was on this precise spot, as I remember it, that Calica stood to address the senate, urging caution in the Empire’s eastern expansion. It was down there that Juvens replied to him, arguing boldness, and carried the day. I watched them, spellbound. Twenty years old, and breathless with excitement. I still recall their arguments, in every detail. Words, my friends. There can be a greater power in words than in all the steel within the Circle of the World.’

‘A blade in your ear still hurts more than a word in it, though,’ whispered Logen. Jezal spluttered with laughter, but Bayaz did not seem to notice. He was too busy hurrying from one stone bench to another.

A few months ago I came across this very interesting discussion by Joe Abercrombie. I had become a fan of the writer since my review and his account of how he was unfavourably compared to J.R.R. Tolkien by Leo Grin raised a grin. This notion of moral relativism in fantasy is quite an amusing one, particularly since the last thing The Lord of the Rings is about is righteousness (Hobbits being made of much softer stuff than warriors and kings, yet in the end winning the day). The comparison was playing on my mind when I began reading this book though.

After the events of the previous novel, Logen Ninefingers finds himself trekking into the wilderness in the company of a legendary wizard, Bayaz First of the Magi, chasing after a long-lost weapon. Colonel West has been handed the unenviable task of ensuring the foppish Crown Prince Ladisla achieves a safe military victory in the Northern territory of Angland. To the south Inquisitor Glokta has been assigned to protect the city of Dagoska from an implaccable foreign army. His mission is hopeless, but he is spurred on by his hatred for the people who broke his body under torture, leaving him a bitter and twisted shell of a man with a razor sharp mind.

With the business of introducing the cast of this series done by The Blade Itself, Abercrombie concentrates on delivering sizable conflicts on a grand scale. The siege of Dagoska in particular is horrific, with Glokta using every trick he can think of to stall the Gurkish army in their progress. West finds himself in the centre of a rout when the arrogance of the Crown Prince, and a peculiarly wily enemy who outmaneuvers the main body of the army, forces him to flee a devastating assault. In the company of a motley gang of Northmen exiles he desperately tries to hang on to his civilized bearing and perform his duty in protecting the life of Ladisla. Unfortunately nothing would make him happier than to take the selfish prig’s life.

To all intents and purposes it is Logen’s sections of the series that supposedly describe the central narrative. Abercrombie gives us a sense of scale with the different outbreaks of war, but Ninefingers and his fellow adventurers are evidently on a quest, of the sort most common in fantasy novels. This is where I began to think of the comparison made by the uppity Grin. As it happens much of the material was disturbingly familiar. Bayaz is a flawed and occasionally unreliable magus, much in the way of Gandalf the Gray. The group visit the devastated city of Aulcus, which reminded me a little of Moria with its ominous shadows and incredible grandeur gone to rot.

My worry is that fantasy novels invariably begin to plough the same furroughs. I could mention that Robert Jordan also echoed Moria with his Shadar Logoth, yet another haunted city. Just how many wizards and weather-beaten warriors have traipsed before our eyes on the page over the years. The author here has a running joke that the magi all speak in riddles and circumlocutions, which few of the other characters have any patience for, a welcome criticism of the genre.

Abercrombie’s theme though is that the characters in this series The First Law Trilogy are in effect all monsters. Some are simply better at hiding it than others.

Perhaps the material is familiar, but Abercrombie still invests his writing with far more bite than most out there. Plus these books are very entertaining and deliciously black humoured. I cannot wait to read the next entry.

Before They Are Hanged Joe Abercrombie

‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Being fictional.’

‘Ah!’ replied Snell slowly. ‘Yes – fictional.’

I realized too late that I had gone too far – it was how I imagined a dog would feel if you brought up the question of distemper in polite conversation.

I have a curious relationship with the writing of Jasper Fforde. So far I have read three of his Thursday Next books and all three of them on planes. Why these books about books, a universe of books navigable by humans, a wonderful mixture of Doctor Who, John Kendrick Bangs‘s A House-Boat on the River Styxx and Douglas Adams – why choose this series in particular to help battle the longeurs and boredom of plane travel?

I have no idea, but it works a treat.

On the run from the monolithic Goliath Corpoation in the real world, Thursday Next has accepted an offer of taking refuge in a terrible novel, all part of the ‘Character Exchange Programme’ requiring only that she fulfil the role of the character she is replacing. The book, Caversham Heights, is an awful crime thriller riddled with clichés and famously unreadable. A perfect hiding place for Thursday, secreted away in the Well of Lost Plots, where fiction itself is alive.

It affords her the chance to recover from the tragedy of losing her husband Landen, wiped from existence by a diabolical fictional loose in the real world, as well as protect her pregnancy (courtesy of aforementioned non-existent partner). She is also studying under her mentor Miss Haversham to become an agent of Jurisfiction, dedicated to maintaining the integrity of book plots. There is also the small matter of two Russian gossips spoiling the plot of Anna Karenina through intrusive footnotes and the strange disappearance of punctuation from Ulysses.

A number of fictional characters are dying in mysterious circumstances. Next is convinced that a murderous conspiracy, somehow relating to the launch of UltraWord™, is responsible. There is also the matter of a mnemomorph, an infection of the mind, eroding her memories of Landen.

The Thursday Next series has a great sense of fun about it, as well as a great sweep of literary references. The footnoterphone takes the ball dropped by Flann O’Brien and Terry Pratchett and runs with it. Fforde is not above parodying the cantina scene from Star Wars, or introducing the cast of Wuthering Heights all taking part in an anger management course. The preening prima donna Heathcliff is a highlight of the novel.

I must confess that for the early half of The Well of Lost Plots Fforde seemed to be overindulging his love of this literary in-jokes and bookworld metaphysics. However, once the actual plot kicks in the meta-critique takes a backseat to the business of advancing the narrative of Next’s adventures. The book is also extremely funny. Below is my favourite exchange of the book, occuring during a deadly trip into an out of print Enid Blyton novel:

‘If you’re exchanging golliwogs for monkeys, you’re in the wrong book,’ he said.

Compulsive reading, with a welcome sense of fun and literary references.

Mat looked each of the five men in the eyes, nodded, and started toward the tent flap, but paused beside Talmanes’s chair. Mat cleared his throat, then half mumbled, “You secretly harbor a love of painting, and you wish you could escape this life of death you’ve committed yourself to. You came through Trustair on your way south, rather than taking a more direct route, because you love the mountains. You’re hoping to hear word of your younger brother, whom you haven’t seen in years, and who disappeared on a hunting trip in southern Andor. You have a very tortured past. Read page four.”

Mat hurried on, pushing his way out into the shaded noon, though he did catch a glimpse of Talmanes rolling his eyes. Burn the man! There was good drama in those pages!

Generally speaking I select a quote from the early section of a book, illustrating  a particularly descriptive event that captures the overall style of the book. For this latest entry in Robert Jordan‘s long-running The Wheel of Time saga I made an exception. Having passed away after a long illness in 2007 many fans assumed the series itself would remain unfinished. Then word was received that Brandon Sanderson had been chosen to complete the books. I will explain below why I chose the quote, but let me add, as I mentioned in my review of Sanderson’s Mistborn series linked to above, that I began reading Robert Jordan a long time ago.

In fact it occurs to me that I only continue to read this series because I need to know how it ends, after spending most of my early adolescence pouring over the series.

As such, a quick note on The Wheel of Time itself. Initially starting out as a fantasy novel in the Tolkien-mode, with three young men from a village being hunted by the evil forces of a satanic presence known as The Dark One, the series developed by giving greater focus to court intrigue and war. Rand al’Thor, Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon are all ta’veren, which relates to the mystical underpinning of the books, each of them capable of influencing what is referred to as The Pattern, the fabric of creation itself. Not only is Rand the most powerful of the three ta’veren, he is also the reincarnation of an enemy of The Dark One named The Dragon. Certain men and women in Jordan’s fantasy universe, like Rand, have magical powers, relating to two counterbalancing sources known as saidin and saidar.

As he has accepted the role of Dragon Reborn, Rand has been declared a messiah by some and a force of chaos by others. For the majority of the series he has been attempting to unite the various kingdoms to fight against The Dark One, who is destined to be freed in an event known as Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle.  Enemy agents, referred to as Darkfriends, monsters and religious bigots have hunted and harried Rand throughout, as well as conspiring to prevent the kingdoms from joining forces.

Sanderson ably maintains the tone of Jordan’s previous novels and concludes a number of subplots that had been dangling for some time. Rand’s grasp on sanity is becoming increasingly perilous, which he has been forced to acknowledge to some of his allies. Perrin and Mat are finding themselves pulled by the Pattern against their will to join their childhood friend as the date of the Last Battle approaches. The Aes Sedai, an order of women who practice saidar, are forced to defend their base of Tar Valon from a foreign invasion. The speed of events has certainly picked up considerably in this book.

However, I chose the above quote because that is one of the few moments when I feel Sanderson’s voice entering the writing. For the most part he imitates Jordan, who sadly had increasingly begun to rely on tiresome clichés and stock situations. There is a very slight critical tone to the proceedings, as Sanderson clears out the accumulated plot-dross of nineteen years.

The Wheel of Time has been mocked for its depiction of the battle between the sexes, its repetitive prose and inflationary cast, but I am going to finish this series despite my embarrassment at having read it for so long! The devoted fanbase has waited a long time and while the occasional rock album raised a chuckle – take a bow Blind Guardian – the Last Battle is long overdue.

Wait,  today is the Rapture? Dammit!!

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a house-wife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.

The next day, we were married.

I found myself in the unusual position of being scolded by this book’s introduction, written by Helen Simpson. “The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings.” Well shut my mouth! I have been going around for years saying, oh, I really want to read this book by Angela Carter. It’s like a feminist retelling of fairy tales. Sounds amazing.

Apparently I was wrong.

Well I am happy to take those lumps, but I might argue that bringing to the fore the sexuality of these heroines in Carter’s fairy tales is feminist insofar as it presents their sexuality as relevant to the text.

Consider the title story, which opens with a young woman travelling to meet her fiancé, with due attention paid to the ‘pounding’ of her heart and the ‘thrusting’ pistons of the train bearing her ‘away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’ The story continues in this elegiac style, risking accusations of being overwritten, but Carter is obviously having wicked fun with this tale of a woman who discovers her new husband carries a dark secret. The Bloody Chamber flirts with the divide between sex and death, the marital consummation equated with ritual murder, the narrator unquestioningly pulled this way and that as if by tidal forces between her mother and her husband.

The following stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride both address the same source material, a recurring technique within this collection, namely Beauty and the Beast. The first story appeals to the high romance of the tale, especially in its numeroues retellings. The second riffs on a cruder sense of humour and explores the venality of ‘Belle’s’ father in losing his daughter to the Beast, not to mention her own knowing mockery of his intentions towards her.

The Company of Wolves, most famously adapted by Neil Jordan, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, the last story in this collection, are all riffs on different aspects of the Little Red Riding Hood story. A similar separation, as with the previous stories depicting different aspects of Belle, is attempted here. The young heroine appears either as an innocent, a woman who uses the desire of the wolf to survive, or a more lupine creature herself.

Puss-in-Boots is transformed into a bawdy farce about a young lover and his feline valet. ‘So all went right as ninepence and you never saw such boon companions as Puss and his master; until the man must needs go fall in love.’ A rich vein of cynicism is explored in this story, with romance simply another scam, another challenge for the wicked pair.

My favourite of the bunch has to be The Lady of the House of Love. This is an extremely funny take on the traditional vampire myth, with a lonely undead Countess feeding on young men who pass through the abandoned village beneath her castle. Until one day, a cyclist on leave from the war arrives to drink from the fountain and is directed by the castle’s maid to visit. Instead of being seduced by the grandeur and ostentation of the abode, he sees nothing but mould and decaying furniture. Completely devoid of imagination he is immune to the charms of the vampire. I learned on the weekend that this young hero was apparently based on an artist neighbour of Carter’s. Quite the poison pen she had.

Deliciously wicked and very funny.



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