Saturday, 24 March 2012

Canterbury Tales

Title: Canterbury Tales
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Translated by: David Wright
Pages: 482 (paperback)
Published: May 15th 2008 (first published 1390)
Published by: Oxford University Press

Chaucer's most celebrated work, The Canterbury Tales (c.1387), in which a group of pilgrims entertain each other with stories on the road to Canterbury, is a masterpiece of narration, description, and character portrayal. The tellers and the tales are as fresh and vivid today as they were six centuries ago.

One night, Chaucer finds himself in a pub. He meets a load of other people going to Canterbury, so decides to join them. To make the journey a bit more interesting, the owner of the pub sets them a challenge: to each tell at least one story on the trip to Canterbury and back to the pub; with him joining them to be the judge, the winner gets a meal paid for by all the others.

This leads to a wide range of tales from the wide range of people who make up this group of pilgrims, and the tales they tell are by turn amusing, entertaining, heartbreaking, educational and (though only a couple) tedious. The majority had some sort of moral to them, which can still be applied to today a lot of the time. Most of them are very good, but some few I found to be a little on the dull side,The Monk's Tale being the one that particularly stood out for me in this regard, it being merely a recounting of all the men through history who had succeeded but then been brought low through one thing or another. Luckily it was quite short so it wasn't too bad.

Particularly of note for me were:
The Knight's Tale, which was long but lovely and showing how much impact one person can have on the lives of others. The phrase which came to mind while reading it was 'bros before hoes'.
The Reeve's Tale was really quite amusing, in spite of it being a little crude.
The Prioress's Tale was absolutely heart-breaking but still a wonderful story. I didn't the consequences coming and they were shocking and so incredibly sad.
The Oxford Scholar's Tale was also sad, but in a very different way. I felt incredibly sorry for the poor woman and everything her husband put her through: it seemed petty and without real need. If I was her I could not have managed to put up with anything near what she did, and I don't doubt everyone else would say the same.

The voices of the tale-tellers were all quite distinct, though I think the host was my favourite character - a pity, then, that he has only a very little input - usually breaking up disagreements between the travellers. Not only the stories themselves, but the form and vocabulary seemed to fit each person wonderfully. The descriptions in all quite light, leaving it up to the imagination of the reader for the most part, which I think was clever. Beauty - in people or place - is very much subjective and so when the beautiful girl was introduced in each story (for there was one in nearly all of them) their physical attributes were left to the imagination.

I have to commend the translation, because when starting out I was worried I would struggle terribly with it, but it is wonderfully done and I found very easy to read and understand. It wasn't all fancy or unnecessarily wordy or anything annoying like that, and I genuinely enjoyed reading the majority of it, skipping through the stories (particularly the earlier ones) at quite a pace.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Sisters Brothers

Title: The Sisters Brothers
Author: Patrick deWitt
Pages: 325 (paperback)
Published: January 5th 2012
Published by: Granta Books

It is 1851, and a lust for gold has swept the American frontier. Two brothers - the notorious Eli and Charlie Sisters - are on the road to California, following the trail of an elusive prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm. On this odyssey Eli and his brother cross paths with a remarkable cast of characters - losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life - and Eli begins to question what he does for a living, and whom he does it for.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious killers and renowned gun-slingers working for The Commadore. He sends them off to kill a man who has stolen something from him and so they begin to journey from Oregon City to a California in the grip of the gold rush. Eli narrates their adventures as they make the trip and track down their man, with their fair share of misfortunes along the way.

I'm reading this book for my book club, and it's isn't really something I would have picked up myself. I'm not really into Westerns, and at its core this is what this book is. For all that though, I did quite enjoy it and it was an easy enough book to read, for the most part. The chapters whiz by, though the two Intermissions are a bit weird, and I don't really see how they fit into the rest of the book. There were also a couple of instances where I had to go back and reread paragraphs because it was a little unclear what was going on, but for the most part the writing was good, if not overly descriptive. Though having said that, Eli doesn't really strike me as the descriptive type so it kinda makes sense that there isn't that much included in his narration of the events.

There is a dark side to it, with the brothers killing their way down to California and the unavoidable accompanying icky bits - the one that comes to mind being Eli standing on the head of a man his brother had just shot in the head and some 'lovely' accompanying descriptions... They killed so many people I lost track, and I get that that's what they do and things were different in that time and place but I still in places didn't like it. But for all that the violence wasn't gratuitous. It fit with the characters and you really do feel that that is just the way they react to things.

This holds particularly true for Charlie who seems the more trigger happy of the two, maybe contributing to me liking him less than Eli. He was mean and selfish, always wanting to get his own way and bulling on regardless of other people, and you do get the feeling that sometimes Eli doesn't really like him. Eli, on the other hand, had something of this in him but you kinda get the feeling he would have been a good guy if it hadn't been for his brother. He does what he can to help a few people and tries to be kind, but there is always that mean streak waiting for the slightest opportunity to leap out. And they have quite a typical sibling relationship - they bicker and they argue, but they're still there for each other no matter what.

The pacing was good, and you were never to long between events, though some of them are a bit random and never really get explained - very reflective of real life I suppose; you don't always find out the endings to things you come across. The ending is weird, in that it's both happy and sad. I couldn't quite decide which feeling was predominant come the end of the book as there are aspects of both. I'm glad Eli and Charlie ended up where they did, but sad about the events leading up to it and what it took to get them there.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Alloy of Law

Title: The Alloy of Law
Series: Mistborn #4
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Pages: 325 (paperback)
Published: November 18th 2011
Published by: Gollancz

Three hundred years after the events of the Mistborn trilogy, Scadrial is now on the verge of modernity, with railroads to supplement the canals, electric lighting in the streets and the homes of the wealthy, and the first steel-framed skyscrapers racing for the clouds. 

Kelsier, Vin, Elend, Sazed, Spook, and the rest are now part of history—or religion. Yet even as science and technology are reaching new heights, the old magics of Allomancy and Feruchemy continue to play a role in this reborn world. Out in the frontier lands known as the Roughs, they are crucial tools for the brave men and women attempting to establish order and justice. 

One such is Waxillium Ladrian, a rare Twinborn, who can Push on metals with his Allomancy and use Feruchemy to become lighter or heavier at will.  After twenty years in the Roughs, Wax has been forced by family tragedy to return to the metropolis of Elendel. Now he must reluctantly put away his guns and assume the duties and dignity incumbent upon the head of a noble house. Or so he thinks, until he learns the hard way that the mansions and elegant tree-lined streets of the city can be even more dangerous than the dusty plains of the Roughs.

This is a sort-of sequel to the Mistborn series: it's set over 300 years after the end of the last book and the events and those involved have become legendary figures of history. Now, we have Waxillium 'Wax' Ladrian has been called back from his life as a lawman in the Roughs to be Lord Ladrian after his uncle dies in an accident. It's an adjustment for him, coming back into civilised society, and just as he's starting to get to grips with it things start to happen, drawing him back into his old life.

Allomancy - the metal-burning magic system of this series - is without a doubt the high point of the world Sanderson has created here. It is wonderfully inventive whilst being really quite simple and very easy to understand. The Allomantic fight scenes were beautifully choreographed and incredibly ingenious, and we get more of that here but with the trappings of a 19th century world, namely guns and explosives. In Mistborn #1-3 we namely followed Mistborn fighters - those with the ability to burn all the metals and use all the associated skills - so it was a nice change seeing how someone with just one of the skills fights. They are more limited in their abilities, so it a little less one-sided and you do get the feeling the other person has something of a chance to win. But I do miss Mistborn fighting, because it was just awesome.

I was slightly disappointed by the story line - it wasn't quite as intricate as what I've come to expect from Sanderson, who normally has twists and turns galore, leaving you wondering what on earth is going on until all is revealed in the final few pages. This wasn't the case here, and I'd say it was because he didn't have the same scope as with his other (longer) series if I hadn't seen him pull it off incredibly well in Warbreaker. It was a little to easy to work out what was going on, and while there was a slight twist right at the end it wasn't anywhere near the scale of what he usually pulls out. It was interesting, but just a little flat overall.

Wax and his deputy Wayne are wonderful though. The banter is fantastic, and I love Wayne's sense of humour and weird morals. Characterisation is something I've always found Sanderson a little lacking in, but he didn't seem to have a problem with it here. Marasi was also an interesting character, but seemed to serve as something of a fact-machine more than anything and while he tried to give her some depth, it didn't entirely work for me.

The world has moved on from the days of Mistborn, and it's great seeing the way in which the world and the culture has moved on since then. How the characters have become legends, having cities and months named after them and religions devoted to them. There are nods and references that readers of the previous books will understand and appreciate, but it isn't necessary - I don't think, anyway - to have read them to appreciate this book. There aren't any of the same characters so you're not missing anything there, and because the events took place more than 300 years prior to this book it doesn't matter if you don't know anything about that either. It is entirely possible to pick this book up and enjoy it for what it is.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Wise Man's Fear

Title: The Wise Man's Fear
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle #2
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Pages: 992 (paperback)
Published: March 6th 2012
Published by: Gollancz

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.

The man was lost. The myth remained. Kvothe – the dragon-slayer, the renowned swordsman, the most feared, famed and notorious wizard the world has ever seen – vanished without warning and without trace. And even now, when he has been found, when darkness is rising in the corners of the world, he will not return.
But his story lives on and, for the first time, Kvothe is going to tell it.

Kote is a simple bartender is a small village, not particularly interesting. Kvothe, on the other hand, is a man of magic, mystery and legend who has performed countless feats worthy of awe.

They are the same man, and this book continues where The Name of the Wind (first in the Kingkiller Chronicle) left off as Kvothe tells his tale.

Quite simply, Rothfuss has done it again - this book is amazing. The story pulls you in, whisks you along with it, and puts you down wondering where the last few hours of your life have gone. Yes, there are times where things are a bit slow, but never were these long enough to truly put me off. The story of his life skips along nicely, while the present-day inches forward just leaving you with questions more than anything - I can't wait to find out how he's ended where he has! We also learn the truth behind a lot of the myths that have only been hinted at until this point, thus demystifying Kvothe a little but not so much that's he's anywhere near completely average.

Because, of course, he isn't. Kvothe is still brilliant, and we actually come across some things he's not so great at for a change. He's witty and clever, and his friends are often amusing as well. I don't remember there being too much about them in the last book, but it is a while since I read it, and it was nice to learn more about them and see the strength of their friendship. I love all the women Kvothe is friends with, too. No wimpy little girl for him! No, they're all strong, know what they want and do what they want. Devi is a little firecracker, Auri is completely adorable for all her self-sufficiency, and Denna is wonderfully independent whilst still wanting closeness.

An intriguing magic system, and here we get to see a bit more of the practical use of sympathy, rather than just classroom stuff. It's a believable magic, based on rationality and physics which I like - it makes sense, and there are limits based on these things rather than the users being all-powerful. It's predictable in its capabilities, but Kvothe is quite ingenious when it comes to these things (though never really seeing anyone else use it, you're not sure whether this is the norm or not) and there are some great moments. Naming - manipulating things by finding their true name - also advances some, which means we get more of Elodin, who is wonderfully eccentric. It is this aspect of the magic system which I think is going to turn out to be most interesting. We know this is what Kvothe becomes famous for, but at the moment most of that is still to come.

But for all this, it just wasn't as good as The Name of the Wind.

Kvothe thrives in adversity, and it is things going wrong and him struggling to survive that the strength of this character is best shown. This time, there wasn't quite enough of this for me. Things went a little too well a little too much, and his inherent Kvothe-ness wasn't as strongly shown this time. And because this story is all about was lacking a little something.

Still, the end says there are darker things in his history coming, and the present hints at mysteries to be solved and things to be revealed. Very much looking forward to it.