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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986) 302 p.

I read a book when I was in primary school called Castle In The Air, a great little Arabian Nights-styled fantasy adventure which stands by itself for the most part, and only becomes confusing towards the end when it becomes clear that it’s a sequel to another book and a bunch of old characters pop up. I suppose my reading choices were limited by what the school library had in those days, because I never ended up reading the first one, Howl’s Moving Castle, or any of Jones’ other books – I think I tried Hexwood but found its plot far too confusing for my age. Howl’s Moving Castle was, however, adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004. It’s not his objective best (that would be Spirited Away) but it’s far and away my favourite of his films: a beautifully creative unconventional fantasy which also slots neatly into my beloved genre of “oddball crew on a weird vehicle.”

So anyway, I thought I’d give the book a shot. It was an experience oddly similar to reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: obviously very different novels, but both cases where the film adaptations are equally brilliant, and pretty faithful – in some instances Miyazaki has replicated the book right down to certain gestures or seemingly unimportant lines of dialogue. The plot, in both the film and the book, revolves around a young woman named Sophie working in a hat shop in a town at the edge of a wild waste, which is the domain of the mysterious wizard Howl and his legendary moving castle, and also of an evil witch. After being paid a visit by the witch for reasons unknown, Sophie finds herself magically transformed into an old woman, with the curse also preventing her from telling anybody about what’s happened. She leaves the hat shop, sets off into the Waste and encounters Howl’s castle.

I think it’s a good book, but as with The English Patient, found it difficult to judge it separately from the film. I prefer the film, which is unsurprising since I’ve loved it for so long, but it’s also because the book has a few too many extraneous characters and plots, and is written in a sort of semi-fairytale style which makes the characters’ motivations and feelings more muddied. (That’s a first – the Japanese story making more sense.) I still liked it quite a bit, intend to read Castle In The Air again, and would recommend it for young fantasy readers. Watch the film as well, though.

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The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton (1996) 1225 p.

Is this the longest book I’ve ever read? I went to the bother of going to my old LibraryThing account and figuring out how to sort by page count, and determined that The Isles: A History is actually slightly longer, at 1296 pages – but that’s non-fiction. The Reality Dysfunction is indeed the longest novel I’ve ever read, scraping past A Storm of Swords by just nine pages.

Peter F. Hamilton is one of Britain’s best-selling science fiction authors, and it’s easy to see why. The Reality Dysfunction is easy, popcorn pulp sci-fi. I wouldn’t exactly call it well-paced, but the prose is workable and it hums along fairly quickly for a book of its length. (Obviously it still takes quite a while to get through.) It takes place in the 27th century, when humanity has spread across the stars in a unified Confederation, peacefully split between the technology-based Adamists, who use good old mechanical spaceships, and the biotechnology-based Edenists, who use living, sentient bioships, live in organic O’Neill habitats, and are telepathically bonded with each other. The introductory phase of the novel — which takes place over a frankly greedy 400 pages — is mostly centred around the tropical planet Lalonde, where new colonists are about to unwittingly unleash something very nasty.

Hamilton’s writing style is fairly humdrum, workable sci-fi prose, not dissimilar to the last mostly forgettable sci-fi book I read, The Quiet War by Paul McAuley. He can occasionally be stilted, switching viewpoint in mid-paragraph or using a comma when a full stop would have been better, and his dialogue is awkwardly expository. The worst aspect of the book for me was the characters. There are probably about two or three hundred who are named, regardless of how small their role is, and they’ll often vanish for hundreds of pages and then reappear with Hamilton expecting you to remember what their deal is. He has a habit of referring to them by their full names (often rather bland names for the 27th century, like “Ralph Hilch” or “Jenny Harris”) which always put me in the mind of working in a large office; people adding the surname in just so you’re sure who they’re talking about, faceless acquaintances you know nothing about but feel obliged to remember. And when the characters are regularly appearing, they’re not much better. The main character, Joshua Calvert, is an atrocious Mary Sue: a 21-year-old smart, handsome, gifted starship captain who literally makes every woman he meets want to have sex with him. I know the Literary Review only focuses on proper literary works, but Hamilton rightfully deserved a Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the endlessly awkward sex scenes that litter The Reality Dysfunction.

For all those flaws, I understand the appeal of a book like this. It’s creative and it’s epic. It has a number of great cinematic moments, like the mercenary team arriving at the Tyrathca settlement or the final desperate rescue mission that occupies the last hundred pages of the book. There are a lot of the exciting cavalry-has-arrived moments you’d expect from a novel like this, simplistic but nonetheless enjoyable set-pieces which make you genuinely pumped at the concept of the good guys getting one over on the bad guys. It’s a readable book, but not a well-written book, if you see what I mean; it often gives the impression that Hamilton is tossing everything at the wall to see what sticks in an early draft. It’s full of sound and fury but doesn’t add up to much. The books I kept comparing it to were Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels, which are either a) better, or b) appear better because I read them as a younger, more easily excitable man.

The phrase I kept coming back to was “airport fiction.” Airport fiction can be any genre – thriller, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever. It just has to check a few boxes. It has to be compelling, it has to have a good premise, it has to be readable but not too weighty; not the sort of arty prose you have trouble wrapping your head around on a 5:00am international flight, when you’re too disrupted to go back to sleep but not in the mood to get stuck into Gunter Grass or whatever. It’s the McDonald’s of fiction: a cheap and easy sugar hit. Sure, you might prefer to get the same sugar boost from more creative confectionery at an artisan bakery, but those are a lot harder to find.

I was, however, disappointed that in the final few hundred pages it became clear that there would be no resolution. I knew it was the first book in a trilogy, but was hoping it might be more loosely connected than that. Exactly what’s going on with the unearthed threat is explained, but it’s barely even begun to affect the Confederation, and it’s certainly not about to come to a conclusion. The book ends with about as much finality or sense of closure as the end of any given chapter, i.e. none at all. I’m not going to blame Hamilton for that, but I’m not going to read the rest of the series either; my curiosity is piqued enough that I’d like to know what happens, but not at the cost of four or five weeks in which I could easily read another five or six novels. I’ll just look up a plot synopsis. McDonald’s is tasty enough, but unless you’re fourteen years old you don’t want to eat it every night.

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