Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb is a much admired and respected fantasy author. I actually read the Farseer trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest) as a teenager, but recently picked them up again. The trilogy follows many of the tropes of fantasy fiction: a faux-medieval world, royal intrigue, magic. Hobb’s world building is excellent and imaginative, so the books do bring something different to the fantasy market.

Fitzchivalry (Fitz), the illegitimate son of a prince, pledges his life to his grandfather King Shrewd. Aged only eleven, he is then apprenticed to Chade, the King’s mysterious assassin. The Six Duchies are under threat from the Outislanders, who no longer simply plunder, but strip humanity from their captives – leaving them only capable of fulfilling animal desires - then release them to wreak havoc on their neighbours. Prince Verity, Fitz’s uncle, is determined to save his Kingdom. Out of love for Verity as much as anything else, Fitz sacrifices much to help. He faces another more insidious threat in the form of his half-uncle Prince Regal, a jealous, manipulative young man who is determined to inherit the throne himself. Meanwhile the Fool takes an interest in Fitz, riddling about prophecies.

The story is narrated by Fitz as an older man. He is not the most admirable of characters; he is often sullen and selfish, but Hobb always keeps him on the right side of likable. It is only fitting behaviour, perhaps, for the teenage boy he is; the journey from boy to man is portrayed warts and all. This is one of the reasons why I think they make an excellent bridging novel for readers moving from the young adult market to the adult one.

It is the tone of these books that I found interesting; they are dark, with misfortune after misfortune befalling Fitz. They contain a reasonable amount of violence, not sweeping battle scenes or glorious vanquishing of enemies, but always as a dark and ugly truth of the world in the form of vicious beatings and secret assassinations. Fitz is just as often perpetrator as victim, and the grim necessity of it all ages him before his time. It is one of the many interesting notions Hobb explores around the pledge Fitz made as a child; his loyalty to his King and family is never in doubt, but Fitz often questions how far he can go. It may be one thing to die for your King, but to sacrifice every living moment of your life is another.

The trilogy is also a master class in plotting, Hobb has written three complete books, each with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, which together make up a trilogy with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Hobb avoids the bombast of many never-ending series (George RR Martin, I’m looking at you). I did think the third book had a few wobbles; the second quarter has Fitz narrowly escape his enemies perhaps a few times too many, but then it picks up speed to weave together the various threads of the story.

Like so many fantasy series our hero is male, but I really enjoyed the female characters in these books. They span a diverse range of womanhood, from the working class to the highest echelons of society. All are strong while feminine, and face adversity without becoming ‘victims’. The books don’t seem to have a feminist agenda like the books of Ursula Le Guin do, rather Hobb seems to find it as natural to write strong, well-rounded female characters as well as male. It is refreshing as so often, not just in fantasy, this is not the case.

A thoroughly enjoyable fantasy series in my opinion. Fans of the Saga of Ice and Fire may want to check these out while waiting for the next instalment. It is the first of four series set in this fantasy world, and she also writes under another pen name as Megan Lindholm. I’ll probably read some more of her books, so watch this space.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The New Moon with the Old, by Dodie Smith

For a large part of my childhood my favourite book was Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations; I even have its much less well-known sequel The Starlight Barking. Later it was replaced in my heart by her fabulous novel I Capture the Castle (my rainy day book). This blog even takes its name from I Capture the Castle, which is written as its narrator’s journals, the first of the three being The Sixpenny Book. So you see, Dodie and I go back a long way. I was thrilled then, when Corsair released three of her out of print novels last year, and promptly ordered myself a copy of The New Moon with the Old. With the anticipation there was of course the dread - sometimes forgotten books are forgotten for a reason. So I was relieved as much as pleased with how much I enjoyed this book. It conjures the well-to-do-but-cash-poor-English just as wonderfully as I Capture the Castle, but without rehashing the same territory.

The New Moon with the Old tells the story of four young siblings whose cosy domestic life in a country house is abruptly ended when their father flees the country accused of fraud. Without his financial support they are forced to find ways to make a living, something they have not been raised to do. In this they are aided (or hindered) by their father’s new secretary, Jane Minton. Smith has structured the book in four parts, each telling the story of one of the siblings, with an introduction, conclusion and three ‘interludes’ from Jane’s point of view.

The England of this book (published in 1963) is a far cry from the one we know today. In this England a young woman (or as it turns out, man) can still make a living acting as a companion to those better off than themselves; reading books and pouring tea makes for a fairly comfortable servitude in my opinion! There is a hint though, of the burgeoning sexual revolution. The teenage Merry reassures her brother upon her return to their home that she is still a virgin
‘Of course you are,’ he said heartily.
‘There’s no “of course” about it. Lots of girls my age aren’t”
It is clear though that Smith writes at a time where females are judged much more harshly than men. The clashing sexual politics of the new and the old are best portrayed in the story of the lovely, but listless, elder sister Clare. Of the four she is the least well equipped to survive in the working world, but she ventures forth anyway. She finds herself in what is almost a conventional romance, but Smith subverts her, and our, expectations. It is masterfully done, and had me laughing in delight.

Smith conjures up a not-so distant past of England, cosy - yes, but not cloying. Most importantly her novels are full of wonderful characters. Charm and eccentricity are often words used to describe Smith’s books. While this is true it is also a rather reductive view. Her novels are peopled by all sorts of characters – dreamy schoolgirls, sure, but also the spiteful and selfish, the hapless and the ambitious. Smith brings a humanity to them all.
They’re typical because of…their unusualness, their eccentricity. I’m convinced England’s overflowing with eccentric people, places, happenings. Indeed you might say eccentricity’s normal in England.
As much as I applaud Corsair for bringing these books into print, for the second review in a row I find myself grumbling about basic editing errors. I have little understanding of how the technical process works, but I can only assume that these books were scanned by computer, and were not read by an actual person at any point. There are a number of nonsensical words scattered through the book, such as ‘dosed’ when ‘closed’ is clearly correct. It is lazy, and very disappointing.

Immediately upon finishing I ordered myself the other two Dodie Smith novels, and I’m itching to read them (but I’m going to make myself wait!). I enjoyed this book immensely; Smith is proof that books read for pure pleasure don’t have to be brainless. If my glowing review hasn’t won you over, then try reading her books yourself.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, by Judith Flanders

My obsession with Victorian London and Dickens rears its head again, this time in the form of Judith Flanders book The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. It is a fascinating and well written account of nineteenth century London. The book is dense, and at times academic enough that it is probably only for those who have a genuine interest. I did think the link to Dickens was rather tenuous, I doubt that she referred to him any more than she did other well-known Victorians. She does shed light on moments in his novels that I had ill-understood as I read them, so perhaps here her connection is on safer ground.

A full sense of the city’s life – both good and bad – are depicted here. The scope of what Flanders covers, as well as the detail, is impressive. Ranging from how streets were paved, and how this changed over the course of the era, to entertainment and eating houses, and even what produce would be available from street sellers at particular times of day. She vividly describes the chaos of trying to move around busy London streets, the mud, the crowds - traffic jams today have nothing on these. Of course no account would be complete without discussing the sewers, cholera, and The Great Stink, when parliament smelt so bad the rich could no longer ignore the (oh, the unsanitary!) conditions many lived in, and finally cleaned up London. A particularly gruelling chapter deals with the failure to properly dispose of the dead. Dickens memorably describes the pitiful burial of Nemo in Bleak House; I had little appreciation of how literally we should take his description of bones breaking through the soil in the graveyards. Not for the faint of heart! Also appalling was the account of life in the slums. This was such a concern to the upper classes that slum quarters were often destroyed, without provision of new housing, forcing more and more of the poor to cram into the slums that did remain.

Crime and punishment is unsurprisingly an interesting section; women in Victorian London are almost synonymous with prostitution, but Flanders makes a good case for how inaccurate this is. Figures for vast amounts of prostitutes are well known, yet the sources for these are, frankly, laughable. One problem is what we would term a prostitute has changed, Flanders quotes a paper writing about dancers who prostitute themselves ‘either for money, or more frequently for their own gratification’. Nowadays we would only class the former as prostitution! Estimates of numbers were reached by extrapolating from the number of births to unwed mothers, assuming that every mother would become a prostitute and work for five years, so 42 000 births annually meant 210 000 prostitutes at any given time. The man who came up with this estimate is known to have been aware that police estimates were just under 10 000 women. Nor was prostitution the bleak road to ruin we often assume, as many woman were known to have saved up enough money to go into respectable trade, and even make good marriages.

Flanders opens each section with well-known events from London’s history. The most fascinating of these was the Tooley Street fire in 1861, in which an enormous fire burned in the warehouses down by the Thames. It was so big that it was three weeks before it was declared fully contained. The warehouses contained cotton, sugar, tea, spices such as cayenne and pepper, saltpetre, sulphur and oil. Not only did the winds blow this noxious combination about in huge smoke clouds, but the burning oil leaked onto the Thames, setting even the river on fire. Despite this huge crowds packed the streets, pubs stayed open all night for spectators and some even hired boats to take them out onto the Thames. It is hard to see a modern crowd glorying in a sulphurous smoke! I suppose we would still watch, but from the comfort of our living rooms.

Flanders is a research fellow at the University of Buckingham, and clearly knows her subject area well. More to the point she is articulate - this book is clear and concise. It is well-indexed too. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the colour-plates; here Flanders is badly let down by the book’s editors. Frequently Flanders points out details that can be seen in the plates, such as details of clothing, and in not a single case that I found was the correct plate number given. On all occasions I managed to work out which plate Flanders was referring to, but this situation shouldn’t have arisen.

For anyone with an interest in the subject I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a fantastic reference book that is both well written and researched. Hopefully editorial quibbles will be dealt with in future print runs. It challenged many of my preconceptions of life in Victorian London. It is striking, but perhaps not surprising how little we have changed; technology is different, but we still judge women on reproductive choices, judge the poor as ‘deserving’ or not, and seek out spectacle in catastrophe. An interesting and illuminating read.