Sunday, 23 August 2015

Chris Kuznetski - The Sign of the Cross

After making my way through the Conqueror series I was in a place for some much needed fun. I had previously read one of Chris Kuznetski’s books and Sign of the Cross just happened to be on the end of my bookshelf. This was good because, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it was definitely the much needed entertainment I was looking for.

The story follows Kuznetski’s heroes, Payne and Jones, as they are tasked with tracking down a supposedly dangerous criminal in Europe. Meanwhile some other guys are re-enacting the Crucifixion of Christ using handpicked individuals as Christ’s replacement. As you can expect, these storylines cross paths in a fast paced, action packed and generally well crafted story.

A lot of what I’m about to say goes against what I’ve said above but I’m slowly coming round to believing that decent fiction cannot be completely well written without being horrendously boring. Entertaining fiction also appears to attract a certain type of pompous dickhead who will criticise someone’s choice of fiction, but I’ll get more into that one later.

Generally speaking, there are few mistakes in the 606 page text and only a few that were worth stopping for. One such issue occurred in the form of where you capitalise ‘dad.’ ‘My dad’ is not capitalised but ‘Dad,’ where Dad takes the place of a name, is a proper noun, and is thus capitalised... but not in Sign of the Cross. There are also a few duplicated words sprinkled around the text but that’s about all I picked up on that broke the flow of the story.

Another interesting one is when one of the wholly English characters used the term ‘mom.’ There is no way an English person would use the Americanism for Mum. Ever.

Moving on to the writing choices; the first one, and I may have mentioned this is my review of The Secret Crown, is that the police are labelled as incompetent from the outset. This one is surprising in that the police rock up at a murder site and immediately contaminate the scene. Like there is any way that would happen in a developed European city. The police in Africa were a lot better prepared when their murder happened and acted a lot more in line with what you would expect.

Another thing that struck me was the similarities between Jonathan Payne and Batman. His company is called Payne Industries. He has loads of money which allows him to run his own detective agency and travel the world at a whim. Both his parents are dead. And he is extremely resourceful. Jonathan Payne is Bruce Wayne.

Perspective is quite often a tricky thing and I’m beginning to wonder if what I was told about its use is actually true. In this book I was perplexed that when we were looking from Nick Dial’s perspective, when he is on a phone call we are able to see the other guy’s reacting in terms of grinning, raised eyebrows, the works. Either Nick Dial has an amazing sixth sense or there are perspectives flying around all over the place.

Geography is another subject that takes a hit. The first one is one that I cannot understand. I’m sure there is a good reason for this but instead of using the world renowned Oxford or Cambridge universities for a setting in Britain, Chris decides to create Dover University, one of the oldest, most reputable and fictitious universities in England.

Italy also doesn’t make a lot of sense. Payne and Jones are able to travel vast distances really quickly, probably on the premise that they have a fast car. However, a fast car does not account for the treacherous Italian country roads. 60 miles only translates to 60 minutes if you are driving at exactly 60 mph the whole way, which is of course impossible to do on winding roads with blind corners that will of course be filled with lorries and coaches, especially as it’s running to a tourist destination.

Which brings me on nicely to my last subject. Everywhere that Payne and Jones go there seems to be conveniently placed Americans to help them with whatever situation they find themselves in, especially when they are in a country where neither of them know the language.

Despite all of these issues as I said at the beginning, it is an enjoyable book that was hard to put down, mainly due to the strength of the story. I will be reading more of his books in due course. However, some people don’t feel the same way. While I’ve mentioned above that Chris Kuznetski fictionalised Dover University, some members of the literary community took this to heart and while focussing on this one detail, labelled the book ‘atrocious garbage.’ I guess some people make my reviews look kind!

The Sign of the Cross by Chris Kuznetski was published by Penguin in 2007. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)

Conn Iggulden - Conqueror

I’ve finally completed this five book slog and I must admit, it took me a lot longer that I would have liked. Based on how quickly I’ve finished my next book, I think it says something about my enjoyment of this series. I did think that Conqueror was the best book in the series in terms of writing however it suffers from the same ongoing issues that plagued the previous books in the series.

I’m not going to dwell too much on this one as, like I said, it’s the best one and it’s probably just my taste that led me to taking so long to finish it.

Anyway onto the stuff I didn’t like. The way Conn Iggulden paints his characters is rather confusing. In the end of the last book, Batu was portrayed as an asshole who believed he was more entitled to lead despite his questionable heritage. However, at the start of this book, Guyuk is immediately made out to be an absolute cunt and Batu is the knight in shining armour who needs to stop Guyuk’s debaucherous leadership of the Mongol empire.

My problem with this is that the best part of writing historical fiction is surely that you can use your own creative whims to fill the gaps between the stuff that is officially documented. So why do we start here and not visit slightly earlier to watch Guyuk’s descent into depravity? Not only would it have made these early scenes easier to understand but it would have made for some interesting reading.

There is the other matter of the ever present, ‘here is that character I forgot about. But he/she is important so here is their funeral.’ This book goes one further by getting rid of Yao Shu by having him leave in one paragraph, and in the past tense, without even a word to anyone despite being ever-present throughout the series. It’s a strange choice because, once again, the character relationships are not something that is overly documented in history. It’s more the events, so I would have thought there would have been more focus on the characters than the events.

The above issues are more writing choices that I didn’t understand but there were a few mistakes that stood out. At one point, one of the Mongol character’s names is spelt incorrectly and towards the end of the book, Hulegu is referred to as Kublai’s older brother, which is careless prose, especially when you are dealing with three brothers at the same time.

And that’s pretty much it. The series has been more enjoyable than it probably comes across in these reviews but I feel I am due a long break from Iggulden and will be exploring different writers over the coming months, as well as revisiting some of my favourites.

Conqueror by Conn Iggulden was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2011. RRP £8.99 (Paperback)

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Conn Iggulden - Empire of Silver

This is forth book in the five book epic that I’ve managed to drag out for far too long, mainly due to the fact that I simply could not get into the book. More on that later, but first – the overview.

In the aftermath of Ghengis Khan’s death, his son Ogedai, is elected to lead over his older brother Chagatai. Ghengis has built a reputation of destroying enemies and not having a home city so, in full respect of his father, Ogedai abandon’s Genghis’s principles and builds a fuck-off massive city in the middle of their homeland. Legend.

The remainder of the story follows Tsubodai as he tries to conquer the entire world while Ogedai sits on his ass at home with a heart condition after his younger, stronger, better looking, more sensible brother, sacrifices himself because some Chinese doctor said it would fix Ogedai. At this point, I was like, what a selfish twat, but I suppose you cannot argue with history.

While the story line follows the historical characters and is loosely based on the events as we know them, is takes bravery to write about a bunch of thugs who went around invading everywhere for no real reason and portraying them as the good guys. Despite this, Iggulden still tries to; albeit very weakly. There is one part where Tsubodai prevents a Russian woman from being raped, not because he is merciful, but simply to prove a point. She will inevitably die a more painful death freezing in the cold after her home was burnt to the ground, but there you go. The lesser of two evils, right?

Compared to the other books that precede Empire of Silver, the first hundred pages or so are actually pretty good. I didn’t notice any writing problems and the writing was well paced. I didn’t even realise how much of the book I had read and that is exactly how it should be. This was also the same for the last 150 pages or so, but there was a big chunk in the middle of the 428 page book that destroyed the pace and felt like a return to the last book in terms of style. There is not really any other word for it but boring. I found myself bored, only reading twenty pages at a time before finding something else to do, including falling asleep.

There are also a couple of new writing errors to pick on. On page 121 the use of punctuation and sentence structure leads to a watermill feeling astonishment at workers wearing soft slippers. There is language choice on page 255, where Tsubodai’s senses are offended twice in the same page where this expression has never been previously used. The writing should not draw my attention away from the story.

There are also the usual inconsequential spelling errors littered throughout. A ‘back’ instead of ‘black’ here, and some misplaced punctuation there, but my main issue with the book is the characters.

Number 1: Yao Shu. The horniest Bhuddist in the East. It’s not so much that his internal monologues about secretly wanting to pork every Mongol wife going wind me up, but more his character change. He wants to pork Sorthatani until the cows come home, but as soon as she gets a sniff of some power, he whips out his hate guns and the horniness goes away. The bit I do not understand is that angry sex with someone you don’t like can be even more satisfying than normal sex with the same person. Use the anger Yao Shu!

Number 2:  Batu. He is just a twat. He is the unacknowledged son of Jochi who, let’s face it, was never really confirmed as Genghis’s son in the first place and for the second half of the book walks around as the self proclaimed Prince of the Nation. Or at least proclaimed by the narrative, anyway. In another show of how big his balls are, he gets annoyed when he challenged Tsubodai’s authority and gets bitch slapped for it. After being raised by the Khan from the gutter, I would expect to see some respect, rather than a sense of entitlement.

Number 3:  Conn Iggulden’s failure to acknowledge a character’s existence unless he feels like it. It happened with Temulun in the last book, where he only wrote her back in to rape and kill her and he does it again here with Genghis’ illusive mother Hoelun. I was thinking to myself when Kachiun died (sorry, spoiler alert, the old man dies) that I’m sure the mother was still popping around somewhere, but we are simply told that she died at some point in the past. I don’t know what she did to piss off the author, but it must have been bad to be written off in such a way, especially when she was a key player to the survival of four of the series’ main characters in the first book and is effectively the mother of the nation.

The historical notes at the end are often a good source for reference material and I always read them out of interest despite them not forming part of the story. I’m glad I did this time because there are some humdingers in there.

According to the notes, Ogedai’s son, Kaidu, was present in at the battles in Hungary but is omitted for fear of introducing too many characters. This would probably explain why Iggulden didn’t focus on Hoelun and Temulun but I feel this is a kick in the teeth. There isn’t a fantastical overload of information in this series as it is, so to remove a piece of history because I’m too stupid to follow it is a very weak justification and also a tad insulting.

Iggulden also omits one of the most famous battles in Mongol history with another weak justification. I don’t really know why. With all the bullshit in the middle of the book, I could have done with some of the more well-executed battle scenes from the end. In fact, I almost feel robbed, especially when writing these scenes appear to be the author’s main strength.

There is one more book in the series and after that, I will be done with Conn Iggulden. After investing in the last four, I can’t stop now. Hopefully the final book offers a thilling finale that will make reading the whole series worthwhile.

Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2010. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)