Monday, 4 June 2012

James Swallow - Deus Ex: Icarus Effect

The concept of books being based on video games seems a bit backward to me. The standard usually follows that a half decent book is turned into a semi-rubbish film that is then translated into a piss poor video game.

I haven’t played Deus Ex: Human Revolution but if this book is anything to go by it should be a pretty good game.

I know, I’m in shock too. The first thing I’ve said about this book is that it’s actually good! Not perfect, mind but when I read a perfect book I’ll stop writing reviews.

In fact there was a major flaw in the very first page in that I had to read it three times because it was the most stagnant two paragraphs of exposition I had ever read. I had no idea of what was going on. The only reason I knew the setting was because it was written at the top of the page in italics.

And whiles I’m drawing attention to this I will also say I’m not the biggest fan of italic subtitles stating the place where that part of the story takes place. If it can’t be incorporated into the narrative, it is redundant information, especially as the first line goes on to state that we are somewhere near Mont Blanc.

I highlight this flaw as major for two reasons – if the first page is that slow and painful, it is not the starting point of the story. In fact, you could happily remove the first chapter and it would make no difference to the outcome of the book, or the readers’ understanding of the events that take place. Removing this chapter would also have heightened my enjoyment of the book.

The second reason, and the more important one, is that the first page nearly made me stop reading. I’ve always been taught that the start of the book is the most important for that exact reason. This leads me to believe that James Swallow must have taken an extract to the publishers as opposed to the first 100 pages, because after I got through the painful, yet short beginning, the book became something I didn’t want to put down.

There are two things about this book that are exceptional; the dialogue and the action sequences. The characters are well constructed and they all act the way they are expected to act.  This does not mean that they are boring; it means that they don’t undergo personality transplants to suit their situations, which is what happens in a lot of other books, especially when authors are stuck with where to go next.

That said, this may have something to do with every character having some kind of physical augmentation and can generally take a few punches - or rockets - to the face. Even Anna Kelso, the small feminine type, gets blown up early on and all she needed was some new biotic eyes and she was good to go again.

There are a few writing slips like there are in any book but there was one that I just didn’t understand – If there is an air vent on the roof of a van, I’m sure drivers in cars would not be able to see said vent. However Swallow seems to think they would – ‘If any of the other drivers in the sparse traffic had given it a second look, they might have noticed the opaque polyglass slits along its flanks and the air vent in the roof.’ This could be as simple as changing the last part to, ‘the air vent protruding from the roof.’ Either that or vans in 2027 has massively obvious air vents on them. Either way, I don’t think any drivers going past a van in the wee hours of the morning would give it a second look regardless of opaque polyglass slits along its flanks. A van is a van and the paragraph is the narrator’s own voice and is redundant anyway.

The only thing that let me down during the 359 page novel, other than the first page, was the premise for the bad guys. Too many times, I’ve read books and it turns out the bad guys are the Knights Templar, Freemasons or Illuminati. Just once I would like a deep-rooted government conspiracy to be the work of one warped individual, rather than these standard collectives. A unique collective would be better  but I don’t understand why in a world where you can have super vision or a bionic arm, the evil doers have to connected to our own history. And clich├ęd, contrived and lots of other mean words.

Deus Ex: Icarus Effect by James Swallow was published by Titan Books in 2011. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)

Philip Pullman - His Dark Materials (Trilogy)

His Dark Materials is one of the most successful series of books in the modern era in Britain. It was number three on The Big Read 2003 and to be liked by the public is no mean feat. However, Pullman only gets credit for the one book, even though Materials is a series of three books. J.K Rowling is credited with 4 of the Harry Potter books for some bizarre reason.

Anyway, 2003 public accolades aside, I received Northern Lights as a Christmas present a few years ago and charged through the book and felt compelled to finished the series a lot quicker than I normally would (I’m still working on Sword of Shadows despite reading the first book in 2009).

I enjoyed the first book a lot despite some choice narration which seems really out of place. On  page 120 there is a description of a guy called Farder Coram smiling that goes like this: ‘Farder Coram’s smile was a hesitant, rich, complicated expression that trembled across his face like sunlight chasing shadows on a windy March day.’ What the hell does that even mean? Especially when it’s next to John Faa’s smile which is, ‘slow, warm, plain and kindly.’ And overkilled with adjectives. But Pullman wasn’t going to write that was he? Compare to rest of the book, in terms of tone and style, this little section lifts right out. I didn’t just glance over it either so whatever it’s meant to do, it certainly does something.

Whereas on the whole, the trilogy was exceptional, there was one continual irritant throughout – Lyra Belacqua, the story’s main protagonist.

Never has a character, when surrounded by a magnificent story, Made me want to tear a book into shreds just to be rid of her. She is spoilt, selfish and annoying throughout to the point where it made my head hurt. I found it impossible to relate to her.

I much preferred Will Parry who appears in the second book, The Subtle Knife. He is well-constructed, edgy and has an air of misfortune about him that I found easy to relate to.

Where Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife are both great books, Pullman then has the problem faced by many authors – finishing a masterpiece. The Amber Spyglass, bringing the trilogy to a total of 1,271 pages, does... an okay job. I’m going down the middle here as I liked how it panned out but there were a few things I didn’t agree with.

The first thing was when a dude called Metatron turned up. I honestly though Lyra has wondered into an alternate reality when Megatron destroyed Optimus Prime and had some kind of robot child spinoff that was worshipped by angels. However, I then did a little research and found out that Metatron is actually some kind of sort of Jewish head angel thing. He is mentioned in a few brief passages in The Talmud, a central text of Judaism. This is really obscure especially as the main focus of the evil in the book is Christianity. Whereas Metatron is a legitimate name from religious mythology, Pullman could have picked something a bit more fitting his subject.

I also didn’t like the whole, ‘religion is evil’ undertone throughout. I know it’s meant to be the whole point of the story but Spyglass takes it a little far at times and Pullman certainly won’t be making friends with the church of England any time soon.

However, the outstanding award for shittiness, still goes to Lyra for being the worst protagonist at the centre of a magnificent story. It’s like finding a long black curly hair sticking out of a hot chocolate fudge slice (served with cream and ice cream).

On the plus side, her daemon has taken on a permanent form of a human – he is now the reserve goal keeper for Manchester City. And French. Who knew?

His Dark Materials bibliography:
  1.  Northern Lights by Philip Pullman was published by Scholastic UK Ltd in 1995. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)
  2. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman was published by Scholastic UK Ltd in 1997. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)
  3. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman was published by Scholastic UK Ltd in 2000. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)