Sunday, 26 October 2014

Conn Iggulden - Bones of the Hills

On to the third book of the series and I am actually shocked to say that the writing in this one is much, much improved. And I’m not even being sarcastic.

We now follow Genghis on his travels through the Arab nations as he conquers and kills everyone in sight. Why? Because some Arab dude personally insulted him by killing his ambassadors. So Genghis abandons his conquest of China, turns 180 degrees and marches the entire nation in the opposite direction. I’m all for this ‘never leave a man behind’ attitude. It’s quite cool. But in terms of military decisions, why oh why would you do that? Destroy one enemy first and then move on to the next. More fool them as well because if you don’t attack them straight away, they will probably think you never will. Therefore, it would be a massive surprise when you march over the hill to avenge your friends who were killed five years ago. That said, I haven’t conquered entire countries before, so what do I know?

Despite my opening praise, the writing issues continue on from where we left off in the last book, this time with completely pointless narrative.  On page 52, Koryo is mentioned and it feels like it is mentioned for the sake of it. The paragraph in question is talking about how they were all happy to be home in Mongol lands, eating Mongol food. During the previous two novels, Koryo is mentioned once and the characters spend a few pages there. In fact, Jelme pretty much arrives there just to be called back so I don’t see how they can say they never had such good food in Koryo, which is mentioned first here, and the Chin lands when the men spent all those years away in Chin lands only. It is not even worth mentioning Koryo.

Whereas the inclusion of Koryo as a reference in unnecessary, there a few key characters who come back to forefront after disappearing into obscurity in the previous novels. In my last review I said that you may have been forgiven for forgetting that Genghis had a mother who was completely ignored throughout the second book. Well, another character has been completely ignored since she was born in the first book; Genghis’ sister, Temulun. One may think that Conn Iggulden does not like writing women into his books at this rate.

Anyway, the illusive sister reappears on page 61 only so that the readership can attempt to develop empathy towards her because she is savagely raped and killed some one hundred plus pages later. It’s crazy if the desired effect is for us to care, and I can imagine this is the only reason it’s in here as the sister has no historical relevance and her death didn’t cause Genghis to kill loads more people. It does, however, give his illusive mother a little bit more screen time as she makes another cameo appearance to be upset about another one of her children being killed.

There are a few other small issues regarding the repetition of names and some repeated information on the same page but it is inconsequential versus the author’s complete disregard of his own fictional characters. This is reaffirmed as I didn’t write anything about the last half of the 503 page book because the majority of it is actually well written. My main criticism is that it is a little dull and predictable and this highlights issues with the writer. He clearly had a plan towards certain historical events that he wanted to write about and has had to put in the boring bits to join up the main events of the story. These differentials should be invisible to the reader, however the fact that they are glaringly noticeable worsened what could have been quite a good story.

Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2008. RRP £8.99 (Paperback)

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Conn Iggulden - Lords of the Bow

Moving on to the second book in the series and we are now following the full life of Genghis Khan after having a glimpse into his sort of unknown, and completely fictionalised to the point of obscurity, childhood.

The first thing I noticed is that when Temujin decided to change his name to Genghis, lord of the grass, he has a complete personality transplant. I was expecting to read about the coming of the man who founded the Mongol empire but obviously skipping that bit made more sense to the author. We never see the improbable struggle of the young boy becoming a leader who cared so much about his own family that he put himself through pain and suffering. We just see the ruthless Khan of the Mongols who strikes down his enemies, and anyone else who even hints at personally slighting his borderline friends.

So yeah, I thought that the main character was a twat so I was prevented from even trying to enjoy the story. However, it didn’t stop me from identifying the continual writing style I don’t like. During the first chapter we are introduced to Kokchu, the clearly evil Sharman who only has loyalty to himself. In case you couldn’t tell he was evil from the first things he says, we are outright told he has evil intentions in the narrative.

There are continual writing style issues throughout the book which is at least consistent with Wolf of the Plains. The simple interactions between two characters get confused really easily throughout. There is no structure to the narrative at all and it’s made even worse when more than two characters are involved. I gave up trying to follow the interactions in the end and just went with where I thought the conversations were going.

Also, I’m not sure of the historic value behind the work and while I understand that Genghis was a bit of war monger, would he really think that after slaughtering over 90,000 innocent people that the Chinese leaders simply wouldn’t care? I really did think that these books would portray Genghis as a secretly decent guy. The first book went towards this by showing how he struggled against adversity to save his people from Chinese oppression, however after doing so, he decides to kill EVERYONE. It’s a little jarring.

There are several other small issues I have with the 456 page sequel. On page 195 it is really hard to work out who is talking. On page 228, one of the characters, Ho-Sa is either going back to his people or staying with the Mongols. If this was meant to be a sort of cliff hanger, then it is utilising a device that hadn’t yet appeared in the series and is completely out of sync with the rest of the book. If not, it is just another example of bad writing. On page 266, three different characters are referred to as ‘father.’ I signed up for a work of fiction, not a puzzle solving exercise.

The only notable problem remaining is that of disappearing characters. The red bird, which was a symbol of coming of age and presumably reclaimed from Eeluk at the end of Wolf of the Plains, makes a reappearance on page 298 and has presumably been there the whole time. The amount of pointless details the book goes into and useless exposition, you would think they would mention some of the time Genghis spends with the bird, especially seeing as it was apparently so important to him in the first place.

Also, did you know that Genghis has a mother? You could be forgiven for thinking he didn’t as she mysteriously disappears for most of the book but only after coming across as a key character in the early pages when she opposes Kokchu’s Shaman approach. It seems to start a plot line and then abandons it for no reason.

There are a load of others things I noticed but the above and the more irritating aspects. What really got me is where the first book is about a period of Genghis’s life that is little-known, his conquest of China is well documented so I would have expected the book to focus more on developing the characters, making them likable and perhaps investigating their personal interactions more. It feels like a very lazy book, especially with the thoughtless construction of the narrative.

Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2008. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Conn Iggulden - Wolf of the Plains

Ages and ages ago, I bought a book in W. H. Smith at a service station. This book was not Wolf of the Plains. It was Empire of Silver and I picked it up from my bookshelf about three months ago as the next reading project. However, when I opened it up, I discovered that it was the fourth book in a series of which Wolf of the Plains is the first, so naturally I had to buy the other three in order to read Empire of Silver. So a one book project became a five book project. Oops.

The Conqueror series follows the life of Genghis Khan and how he became the fearsome conqueror who build the Mongol Empire and slaughtered a load of people. Kind of like Hitler without prejudice.

It didn’t take long to come up with loads of criticisms, mainly relating to the way the prose is written. I don’t know if this is because I’ve spent the last six months in the Game of Thrones world, but when I got to chapter three, I noticed that the perspectives change about three times on the same page and sometimes within the same paragraph. No warning is given for this change either.

I’m not just basing this on my Game of Thrones experience either. Back when I was learning how to write, 
I was told on more than one occasion that certain parts of my writing were weak because of the change in perspective and that it showed a lack of control. If this is true, it certainly didn’t matter to Conn’s publisher as the story uses loads of perspectives that change throughout the book. If four people are having a conversation, Conn will switch between them giving the readers a sample of what each of them is thinking.

I carried on being annoyed by the way the story was written. The overzealous switching of perspectives is used on several occasions to let us know that a certain character is thinking something evil. This level of overshadowing is the equivalent of my boss telling me I’m going to be fired in a month’s time. I know it’s going to happen but there is nothing I can do to stop it.

By page 150 of the 455 page series opener, I honestly thought that Conn must think his target audience have absolutely no intelligence whatsoever and are not interested in applying any kind of thought to his prose. This is displayed by the constant and obvious overshadowing and underlining of previous incidents. It was one step above having annotated notes at the bottom of the page such as, ‘This is the character from the previous page who pushed Temujin into a pile of manure. He is going to get his shit fucked up later when Temujin kicks his ass!’

Also, the dialogue breaks were a little non-standard. One character would make an action or gesture in one paragraph and then have dialogue in the next. I had to do a double take a few times to work out who was actually speaking. One character would have some dialogue and then the other character would have an action which appears to be an acknowledgement of the dialogue and then this same character responds with their dialogue in the next paragraph. There are too many breaks and it makes the narrative very disjointed in places. In addition, if I have to do a double take to figure out who is talking then the characterisation through dialogue is clearly weak as well.

The last thing that really fucked me off massively was the use of Deus Ex Machina. To be honest I’m not the best at picking up on this sort of stuff but this one was horrendous and factors in the above perspective thing.

Temujin is captured by his old tribe and thrown into a hole to be executed. There is no way for him to escape. However, fortunately in the chapter previous, a character called Arslan, who swore an oath to Temujin’s father, just happens to turn up at the camp and take an instant dislike to the tribe’s new leader. So it was really fortunate that Arslan is there to spring Temujin out of his hole and help him escape. It’s almost worse than the ‘because I said so,’ approach to fiction taken by  Stephen King in the Dark Tower series, although, on reflection, I think this is worse as King’s was a little bit tongue in cheek.

Now, I know what some of you may be thinking; ‘You said Wolf of the Plains was based on the life of Genghis Khan. Surely this must have been based on real events?’ However, I have done my research! Well, that’s not strictly true but I did read the author’s Afterword where he outlines the real-life events that inspired his work of fiction. He makes no mention of this Arslan character and simply states that Temujin escaped. It would have been much more plausible for Basan to have helped him and I’m not sure why this Arslan character has been thrown into the fray anyway, other than to rescue Temujin from the hole.

I will most likely go on and read the rest of the story as it does have some good bits and will, at the very least, teach me a little bit about the Mongol Empire. I’m sure pretty sure I’ll find some new shit to piss me off in the next book. Watch this space.

Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2007. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

George R. R. Martin - A Dance with Dragons

I’ve finally reached the end of the current published instalments of A Song of Ice and Fire and I’m left with a resounding sense of... mild disappointment. It’s not that this book isn’t great because it is, and it is certainly better than A Feast for Crows which did feel like an epic slog. It’s just that, well... nothing really happened.

I bought the book in two volumes. Dreams and Dust (624 pages) and After the Feast (493 Pages) have a combined length of 1,117 pages and that’s a lot of prose to write without pushing any major storylines forward.

It’s hard to describe my dissatisfaction towards this issue with ruining the books for those who have not read them. Incidentally, this makes it almost impossible to talk about it with my two friends who have read the books when my other friends, who only watch the television series, are around. So everyone will have their opinion on the subject but mine is going to remain very general.

I will, however, express even more dissatisfaction toward the lack of chapters relating to Jaime, who I’ve actually grown quite fond of. It seems that he has some kind of part to play but this isn’t elaborated on at all as all he does is ride around the Riverlands to chat to some minor characters about the King. He’s hardly in it and when he is, he is very under-written.

I have the same criticism towards the Iron Islanders chapters but for different reasons. I don’t like them. I think their whole background is shit and that they are just there to be a minor irritant. All they do during the book is sail. And then sail. And then sail some more. Victarion says some stuff about being from the Iron Islands and that’s about it. But, because of my overall dislike of them, I have to continue to question their overall contribution. I mean, obviously they must have some part to play. But I will be really annoyed of having been subjected to their Drowned God bullshit throughout If they just turn up at some battle and get smashed to pieces by everyone else.

Victarion also has a poor memory or he is poorly tensed. On page 345 of After the Feast, I became really confused. Victarion, while they are sailing, occasionally captures some ships. When he does, he changes the name of the ship to be more to his liking. However when he captures one such ship, the Willing Maiden, and renames it Slaver’s Scream, it is then referred to by its previous name in the following paragraph. It took me a while but I go there in the end. But my confused could have been avoided had the line read ‘the ship formally known as the Willing Maiden.’

There were only two other things that stopped me during reading, so compared to A Clash of Kings and A Game of Thrones it is essentially a very well written novel.

Number one was on page 141 in Dreams and Dust. It’s the first page of a Davos Chapter where we are talking about torches in a hall. ‘Twenty iron sconces were mounted along his thick stone walls, but only four held torches, and none of them was lit.’ I’m pretty sure this sentence does not need the last comma and also it should be ‘were’ instead of ‘was’ as it is referring to four torches, not one.

Number two was on page 370 of After the Feast and is simply a case of mistaken sex. ‘I am beautiful, she reminded himself,’ which I absolutely loved because I fucking despise Cersei Lannister and want to see her die. Without giving too much away, this was one of my favourite parts of both volumes.

Despite what I’ve said above, I really did enjoy the books even if the end wasn’t very rewarding. This is even more frustrating after looking back over publication dates. A Feast for Crows was published in 2005 and A Dance with Dragons in 2011, so it looks like we’re going to have to wait another three years before finding out what happens to some of our beloved characters. And the less beloved ones as well.

A Dance with Dragons bibliography:

A Dance with Dragons – 1: Dreams and Dust by George R. R. Martin was published by HarperVoyager in 2011. RRP £9.99 (Paperback)
A Dance with Dragons – 2: After the Feast by George R. R. Martin was published by HarperVoyager in 2011. RRP £9.99 (Paperback)

Saturday, 4 January 2014

George R. R. Martin - A Feast for Crows

So - moving on to book four of A Song of Ice and Fire and the book with the most misleading title so far. The storyline doesn’t venture to the wall so the reference to Crows, or the Night’s Watch, feels a little wasted.

We are introduced to many, many, many more perspectives and it is another monster of a book coming in at 776 pages. It was so long, in fact, that when I got to the end, I had to reread the first chapter again as the book has framing. In my opinion it seems a bit silly to frame a book of this magnitude, and if I’m completely honest, I still have no idea as to the relevance of Pate’s opening and his cameo appearance at the end, but I’m sure it will become relevant in some later book.

I also felt that the book was too long and makes the same errors as The Sword of Shadows series in that a chapter would get me interested in a character and as soon as I’m hooked, the perspective would change to another character that I wasn’t as interested in.

By now, we already have an established base of characters, most of which I enjoy, with the notable exceptions from my previous review. So I didn’t see the need to introduce yet more characters and also using generic titles such as, The Captain of the Guards. I’m also pretty sure (although it’s a little fuzzy) that a few of these characters only make the one contribution and I have to question the point of this. It seems that the author is keen to tell us every angle of the story whereas some readers would probably like to use their imagination and try to work out the bits they don’t know for themselves.

I don’t understand why the Greyjoy side of what’s going on is documented from three different perspectives in the book. I personally didn’t like this because I think the Ironborn side of it is boring. They seem to be a bunch of people living on a small island who think they are better than everyone else despite having nothing to show for it. If you honestly think drowning someone and then resuscitating them is a good way of making sailors, then you are clearly mental. Their saying, ‘What is dead can never die. But rises again harder and stronger,’ is stupid. What is dead is dead. And doesn’t rise again, unless it is a zombie. Or you are North of the wall.

Other than that, A Feast for Crows is an excellent book in an excellent series and I can’t wait to get stuck into the next one. A Dance of Dragons deals with the other half of the characters and chronologically runs alongside Feast. So that means no Ironborn (maybe) and the return of Tyrion Lannister!

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin was published by Voyager in 1998. RRP £9.99 (Paperback)