Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Gormenghast Trilogy

I'm working my way through this little 900+ page story.  Well, it's not really that big of a story, because it's three books in one, and I've read a few trilogies that are longer.  I thought I'd just write a little about my initial impressions of it.

This was my initial impression when I opened it at the first page of the first book, Titus Groan, and started reading:


The first, ooh, hundred pages, shall we say, were BRILLIANT.  I am now on about page 260, and I must say that my love for the book has gone off the boil a little bit.  I've been waiting for something, something epic, something to do with bigness, something that involves masses of little characters, something ...

This is what the blurb says on the back of the copy I have:

'Gormenghast is the vast crumbling castle to which the seventy-seventh Earl, Titus Groan, is Lord and heir.  Gothic labyrinth of roofs and turrets, cloisters and corridors, stairwells and dungeons, it is also the cobwebbed kingdom of Byzantine government and age-old ritual, a world primed to implode beneath the weight of centuries of intrigue, treachery, manipulation and murder ...'

Now, it all has the potential to be there, but I'm still waiting for it.  I know that the castle is vast, because I've been told that it is, but I'm still waiting to see any of it.  I've been allowed to see a little bit of it, right at the beginning when Flay walks about an area of the castle watching everyone celebrate the birth of Titus, but nothing really that suggests to me that I'm glimpsing just a teeny little section of a much bigger place.  At first I was introduced to a fair few characters in fairly quick succession, and I was hoping that the introductions would continue apace, but all of a sudden they stopped and it seemed that I'd met everyone I was going to meet, at least in this the first book.  I'm disappointed by that, because I really would like to meet more servants, and more dignitaries and such.  For such a vast castle, there are very few people at the hub.  There's nothing really wrong with that, but it's just not what I was expecting.  I've not really been made aware of the centuries of intrigue either - there's been no history recounted at all so far.  I can understand that that is because nothing has changed at Gormenghast for centuries, but it's just that I was told (as you see above) that there's been all this 'intrigue, treachery, manipulation and murder' for centuries - I just find it odd that I'm not told anything about it.  I don't really think that's the fault of the author - Mervyn Peake has written the book that he has written, and it's good, seriously good: it's the blurb that's misleading.

But anyhow, I'm carrying on with the book, because I really do like it, and am enjoying it very much.  The characters that I have been presented with are beautifully drawn, deliciously caricatured.  Strange that Titus Groan is a baby, and barely seems to feature in the book - but obviously he's going to become the title character is the second and third books, Gormenghast and Titus Alone.

I think I might be reading this book for about seven months though, since I'm only managing to read about ten pages a day.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Skull and Bones, by John Drake

What a great name for a writer of pirate tales, eh?  John Drake.  Not that Francis Drake was a pirate (quick look on Wikipedia has just told me that Francis Drake was a privateer, which is not so dissimilar from a pirate!) but I think he knew some things about boats.

I don't know anything about boats, except that they make me feel incredibly sick.  But I love how I can follow three whole books chock full of nautical terminology without breaking a sweat or suffering a headache.  I don't know how John Drake does that, but I do always know exactly what he's talking about - at least I think I do.  He doesn't patronise me by sticking in a landlubbing and stupid character who needs to have everything explained to them either.  He just chucks his readers in at the deep end and expects them to swim.

So, this, Skull and Bones, was the final part of the Treasure Island prequel trilogy - should the books be called a trequel?  Yes, I think so.  Was this book satisfying?  I think so.  Did it lead on to Treasure Island nicely?  Certainly.  Would I recommend the trequel?  Wholeheartedly.  Now, I would not say that I was disappointed with Skull and Bones, not at all: it was excellent, stunningly written by a master of his craft, an absolute joy to read.  I could read ten more, twenty more.

With a prequel, you necessarily have to manoeuvre the story into position to allow the main story to take over smoothly without too much of a change of tack (did you see what I did there?  A nice mash up of nautical metaphors).  That was all fine, and I could see that two particular characters had to be brought back together in order for both parts of the map not to be lost.  But what I did miss in this book was Flint's evilness.  In the first and second books, ooh, he was bad - a finer baddy you could not have wished for.  He was nasty, and his favourite pastimes were inflicting terrible injuries on anyone he cared to mutilate, and then watching them die gruesome deaths.  Another person's pain never failed to make him giggle, he was an absolute delight to read, wonderful.  I have never enjoyed a baddy more.  It was clear to see that Drake knew the character of Flint inside out (as far as Flint allowed him to, though I am sure Flint guarded his most secret thoughts from Drake), because he was so well written, so vivid and alive.  As was Long John Silver - but Silver was glorious in Skull and Bones, and I liked him just as much as I ever did.  But poor Joseph Flint had lost his sparkle for the most part, and I missed it.  It was part of the story, and it worked so nicely, really it did, the taming of Flint - however short-lived - but still I missed his games.  I'm sure John Drake probably did too.

Long John Silver captured my heart from the beginning, and he held it fast until the end.  What maiden could fail to be won over by such niceties as 'bugger me, clap a hitch, you filthy swabs!'?  Not I.  I loved him, and always will, no matter how I find him to have been drawn by Stevenson in Treasure Island.

It's Selena who I still can't get on with.  I still find her a bit insipid, a bit whiney, too indecisive.  I want to give her a slap and tell her to decide who and what she wants.  And I can't really see what Flint and Silver see in her, except that she's stunningly beautiful, and the only woman the two pirates encounter in their years of sailing back and forth across the Atlantic (apart from some haggard old whores*!)

But all in all, a bloody good read.  I am sad that my seafaring adventures are over, because I know that Treasure Island, however good it is, will not have the humour and wit that Drake infused his stories with, and it won't have the tantalisingly naughty undertone that he sometimes plays with.  But I have hopes of it being exciting, and look forward to meeting again some of the characters that I feel I know so well now: Billy Bones, Israel Hands, Black Dog, Ben Gunn, and not to mention Long John himself.

Bravo, John Drake, bravo!

*John Drake's word, not mine; he also calls them 'tarts'.

I wrote a review of the other two books in the series a few months ago, Flint and Silver, and Pieces of Eight.  You can read that review here, on HubPages.

Red Gloves, by Beth Vaughan

Hmm.  Red Gloves.  I'm getting a bit less tolerant of books with beginnings that don't grab me - my time is precious, so I am tending to leave books unfinished if I'm finding them dull or badly written.  Red Gloves almost got put back on the shelf after a few pages.  It started well, and I was intrigued by the character of Red Gloves from the start as she was good and tomboyish in her mannerisms and speech.  I like tomboys, being one myself.

But I lost patience when after a few pages she was trying to seduce the first bloke offered up in the story, and I was disappointed that a perfectly good book could potentially be ruined by smut.  But I persevered because I wanted to see if there would be more to the story - surely a book with such instantly vivid characters would not be just full of filth?  I also hoped that I wasn't going to be expected to like Red just because she was physically strong, sexually independent and confident, and emasculated.

It turned out that I wasn't expected to like her for those things.  And it also turned out that I was rewarded for my perseverance.  There was much more to Red than sex.  What a great character, full of conflict, moody, transparent, complex, challenging.  She was a real treat actually.  She was also very easy to like.  Having said that I don't think she would be to everyone's taste.  And there was a history to the world that Vaughan had created.  I could well imagine more stories and more characters.

I've only one criticism really, though it is quite a big one.  With a story so well thought out as this one, and with so many interesting characters, I would have liked this book to have been three times as long, or even part of a series.  I felt as though the story was just getting going, and then it was over.  The end was rushed, the battle was too vague and was fought at a distance, and also was won too easily, and the conclusion was too obvious and a little too much on the sentimental and mushy side for my liking.  This book had tremendous potential, but it did not quite fulfill it.  I wanted more from this book, but I felt as though I had to fill in the detail for myself.  There were so many secrets - practically every character had one - but almost none of them were revealed and explained fully or satisfactorily.  The secrets of the two main characters were told, but I'm nosy and I wanted to know why everyone had a shifty look and a guilty manner.  If the booked had been stretched out a bit, these secrets could have become the integral parts of the story that I had expected them to be.

Actually I did have another criticism, and that was that the writing was sometimes a bit lazy.  I remember screwing my nose up at one particular sentence: 'Jonas just stood there'.  What?  Are you kidding?  The dialogue is often lyrical in its efforts to place itself in the high fantasy category, and then we get 'just stood there'.  Hmm.  Stood where?  Hmm.  A little bit first drafty, if you ask me; a sentence that was missed in the edit, perhaps.  Now, don't get me wrong, there was no peppering of lazy sentences in this book, and goodness knows my own writing is full of them.  But these kinds of sentence just helped to give the book a feeling of not being finished.

So in short, testing beginning, good middle, rushed end.  Maybe it's just that I like an epic: three or four books make a right good story for me.  A book of 300+ pages only whets my appetite, really.

And so here, I think we have learned something about different tastes ... err, they all ... different.  Mmm.