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AA Gill Is Away by AA Gill (2002) 305 p.

This is another book I used to flick through during the endless tedious hours at my bookstore job. AA Gill is a British columnist, ostensibly a travel writer, but not the kind with a tagline at the end which says “the writer was a guest of X Travel.” Gill is as much a political and social writer as he is a travel writer, and this compendium of his columns for the Sunday Times ranges across topics from a Sudanese famine to the California pornography industry to one of the worst environmental disasters of all time – the drying up of the Aral Sea by Soviet agriculture. This one in particular struck me with its ending, because I’ve noticed at my current job how British journalism is typically incapable of wrapping up a story without some kind of neat ending:

A story like this, a story of such unremitting misery, ought to end with a candle of hope. There should be something to be done. Well, I’m sorry, but there isn’t. Plenty of better men with clipboards and white Land Cruisers have been here to put it back together again, but they’ve retreated, dumbfounded and defeated.

Gill is notorious for his scathing criticism and “rapier wit,” but in the prologue he says: “Like many writers who resort to humour, really, I want to be taken very, very seriously.” He succeeds at both, with a distinctive writing style that’s both funny and thought-provoking, and I definitely intend to buy his other books.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996) 801 p.

I tried reading the Wheel of Time series in university, and gave up around the fifth book, due to sheer and unrelenting tedium. I’ve been meaning to give traditional fantasy another crack recently, and it was a toss-up between this and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. With the recent TV adaptation surging in popularity, it seemed like it was really time for A Game of Thrones. In the last few weeks of my bookstore job, I think I alone sold about 100 copies of this book.

I didn’t absolutely love it, but I liked it quite a bit, and a lot more than I expected to. Martin’s series, which now stand at five thick novels and counting, is fantasy of the complex political plotting genre, full of dynasties and power struggles and betrayals and so on. It takes place in the usual medieval European fantasy setting, one where the old king was overthrown a few years back and replaced with a new one from one of the noble houses. Much of the book revolves around the Stark family, the rulers of a northern sub-kingdom, and the new king recruiting his old friend Lord Eddard Stark to begrudgingly serve as a right-hand man amid the complex political intrigues of the southern capital.

Martin’s world is a pretty generic fantasy setting, minus overt magic, and I didn’t find him particularly creative in traditional fantasy terms. There are a few striking creations – the enormous wall of ice which protects the kingdom from something it no longer quite remembers is one, and I especially liked the “sky cells” in the dungeon of a castle set halfway up an enormous mountain, where a character is imprisoned in a room with a wall open to a sheer drop, with a slightly sloping floor. One story thread is set in a culture inspired by Central Asia, which is a refreshing change. But most of the book is in the same Tolkien/European style fantasy setting used by a thousand other series, and there were a few things that were downright lazy: the currency is “gold pieces,” knights are titled “Ser” rather than “Sir,” and – most egregiously of all, as far as I’m concerned – the language used across the kingdom is called “the Common Tongue.”

All of this is redeemed by the fact that Martin is a much better writer than most fantasy hacks – certainly better than Jordan, the only other fantasy writer I have much knowledge of. Martin’s prose, while not amazing, is polished and competent, and his characters are well developed; in particular, his villains inspired utter loathing in me, while still seeming believable, which is hard to pull off. And Martin is good at doing things the reader doesn’t expect – there’s a shocking scene near the beginning of the book, where something happens to a viewpoint character, which made it clear that this was going to be a series where no character is safe.

Most impressive of all is how he manages the flow of the story. In 800+ pages I never once felt that the book was bloated, that the plot was moving too slowly or too quickly, or that I was bored or reluctant to read it. I can’t recall the last time I read a brick of a novel that was so well-paced and deceptively readable. Even Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an overall better book than this, was slow to start and lagged at the end.

Generic fantasy involving political struggles between various houses, with detailed information on their fictional lineages and banners and so on, is typically the kind of fiction I avoid. But a good writer can make anything work, and Martin absolutely makes A Game of Thrones work. I’d certainly recommend this book, with the caveat that it’s not self-contained – it’s obviously the beginning of a lengthy saga, and you have to be prepared to make the time investment to read the whole series. But if they hold up to the standard set by the first book, I’m quite happy to do so.

A Game of Thrones at The Book Depository

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983) 464 p.

The Anubis Gates begins with Brendan Doyle, a middle-aged historian, being invited to England as an expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He is surprised to find his employer wants his talents because he has discovered a gateway through time and is intending to escort a number of wealthy people (at a price) back to an evening in 1810 to listen to a lecture by Coleridge himself. (Surely, by the way, I’m not the only one who could think of more interesting things to do for an evening in 1810 London than attend a lecture?) It’s not giving too much away to say that Doyle find himself separated from the group, misses the return cut-off, and finds himself stranded in the 19th century.

I picked this up after reading about it on some 100 Greatest Science Fiction Novels list or another, but it’s probably more of a fantasy novel. The time travel is caused by ancient Egyptian magics, and Doyle is delivered not to an accurate representation of 1810 London, but rather a London spiced up with various magical background monsters and villains – some of which are positively cartoonish. I don’t mean that Powers is deliberately creating an alternate past – it’s more of a “just below the surface” world, and apart from the initial jump (and a later interlude) time travel isn’t even a dominant aspect of the story.

The Anubis Gates is a very schlocky novel, and my feelings about it are mixed. It’s a readable book, for the most part, with a number of neat moments and a relatively intriguing plot. But towards the end it suffers under the weight of too many plot threads and ideas, with Doyle hanging about at a few historic scenes for absolutely no reason. Powers’ prose is no more than mechanically competent, with a guarantee of at least one cliche or stock phrase every page, and his characters are largely cardboard cut-outs; I only finished it two weeks ago, but had to get up and find it again while writing this because I couldn’t remember the main character’s name.

Overall, not an outright bad book, but not a good one either. Read it if you’re into this sort of thing and don’t have anything better closer to hand.

The Anubis Gates at The Book Depository

Wind Warnings for Sunday:
Gale warning for Far North West Coast, Lower East Coast and South East Coast

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February 2012