The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker 2012)

Age-of-Miracles

The Age of Miracles is the debut novel of Karen Thompson Walker. The Age of Miracles is a science fiction novel which revolves around the effects of a fictional phenomena where the Earth’s days take increasingly longer to complete. At first only taking a few extra minutes, as the novel progresses the phenomena escalates to the point where the days take up several days and eventually weeks. The population realise that they have a crisis of apocalyptic proportions on their hands. The novel focuses on the impact this crisis has on the general population, as seen through average eleven year old girl, Julia. She is forced to watch as the phenomena affects her life and those around her as she and those around her begin to accept the reality of their situation.

In terms of the plot the story is more of a character drama. The “slowing” crisis is a backdrop through which all the drama of the story occurs. The crisis is shown from the perspective of those experiencing it, as opposed to anyone with the power to try and stop it. In fact, as the story progresses it becomes apparent that the crisis can’t be stopped in in the ultimate play on disaster story expectations. In the end I expect most disaster stories to end with some kind of miracle solution to the crisis which allows humanity to continue survival. Yet this work ends differently, instead providing a more bleak outlook on the crisis. This is one of the things the work does well and one of the things I admire it for. My one criticism is that the crisis itself felt a bit too “cosy” at times and the effect it has on the plot can be a bit subtle at times.

The conflict and the effect the crisis has on the setting is evident but at times I feel like it doesn’t have too strong effect on Julia, the protagonist. Sure, her friends and family begin to suffer from the effects of the slowing illness that spreads and some stuff happens to her friends due to reactions to the slowing but in the end not a lot happens to her personally. She seems like an impartial observer who happens to be caught in a comfy spot in the middle of it all. She doesn’t experience the crisis directly in the way her friends and family do, which bothers me. Her rather dull view on events makes the rather big crisis seem like a cosy catastrophe despite the fact that it shouldn’t be. I wanted to view the slowing for what it was, a huge society changing crisis. As I read the novel it felt like society was just continuing as it was before. I can’t quite put my finger on why but the conflict of the novel just felt dull.

In terms of character arcs themselves there were times where Julia’s naivety got on my nerves. In particular was her reaction to her father having an affair with the next door neighbour Sylvia. While the affair is initially portrayed as wrong, even though Julia’s naivety as an eleven year old causes her to blame in on the slowing making people more impulsive, the issue is quickly hushed over when her father leaves Sylvia to focus on forming a better bond with his wife after she falls ill. This irked me a bit since after that point the issue was sort of put under the rug but I always felt like he should have received a bit more punishment for his actions. As a result this story arc sort of broke my immersion within the story since it did not feel like a realistic portrayal of how an extra martial affair would typically end.

As a whole I would say that the novel was similar to what I expected it to be. A lot of the marketing material referred to the crisis as an invisible catastrophe, at least in the beginning. That’s precisely what the crisis was in the end, subtly handled to the point where it was almost invisible despite the effect it had on the world. I felt like the novel was suitably depressing and played on a lot of expectations but at times the conflict failed to deliver and I think at times it felt a bit too light when it came to handling the actual crisis despite the effect it had on the world in the story. It was a good book and one I’ll remember but it had its flaws too and overall I’d say it was a fairly average read as a result.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: OKAY

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Last Argument of Kings (Joe Abercrombie 2008)

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At last it is time to review Last Argument of Kings, the final book The First Law trilogy. While the series has gone on to spawn sequels featuring their own standalone stories, this book marks the end of the original trilogy and of the story contained within. Like before Last Argument of Kings follows the six main characters that we have followed throughout the series. The story revolves around Bayaz’s return to the Union capital, where he begins preparing Jezal dan Luthar for some unexplained master stroke which ultimately places the unlucky fop on top of a throne that he never really wanted. Meanwhile Glokta is left scrambling on behalf of his superior, Arch Lector Sult, who is desperately trying to figure out Bayaz’s true game plan but always seems to be a step or two behind. However when forces from the past come back to haunt him, Glokta is forced to reassess his loyalties. Meanwhile the Union faces twin threats from the Bethod, King of the Northmen and the barbaric Gurkish who each seek to invade the Union for their own ends.

The plot of the series starts to crank up in this instalment, especially when compared to the relatively uneventful previous novel. Plot threads from the previous novels start to pay off by the dozen, including Bayaz’s past, the Gurkish and Bayaz’s search for the mysterious item known as the seed. Some paid off better than others. Bayaz’s past and the trouble that comes with it is one of the best played plot threads, especially when it is the true extent of Bayaz’s manipulations is shown. The varying ways in which the various plot threads tie back to Bayaz, his manipulations and/or his past is simply astounding. Nearly every major plot thread can be traced back to either Bayaz’s manipulations or the actions of his enemies trying to stop him. The extent to which everything linked together left me breathless.

With regard to individual characters’ plotlines Logen Ninefingers’ and Ferro’s plotlines seem to drop a bit. My first gripe with this is that they were separated in the first place when they made for such a great couple but I already knew it wasn’t going to be a happy ending kind of story so I didn’t take too much issue to them not interacting. However I did take issue with how boring their plotlines became. Ferro seemed to exist soley in this novel so that somebody can witness Bayaz’s actions and get a more deeper insight into Bayaz’s motives through the story. She kills a few Gurkish here and there but doesn’t really do much. In fact the only time she starts to do something promising is after her transformation in the epilogue.

Logen meanwhile had a fairly solid action based plotline for a large portion of the novel but the climax to his personal arc with Bethod seemed to come far too early into the story. When he finally defeats Bethod it isn’t until halfway through the novel then gets crowned King of the Northmen. Then he spends half the novel not really doing much until the novel’s climax, where he joins in the final battle. I couldn’t help but feel that the climax to his personal arc with Bethod could have happened sooner and could have streamlined his story arc as King of the Northmen so there wasn’t such a lull between the fight against Bethod and the novel’s final battle. I was a fan of the ending scene for his story though, but I shall not reveal for spoiler reasons. At first it felt abrupt but I realised how it connected to the story and is went on to show that being the good guy doesn’t give you immunity from suffering a horrible fate.

The character who I felt most sorry for is Jezal, who spends most the novel as Bayaz’s play thing and by end of the novel he still is. His life has essentially been ruined by Bayaz’s machinations and is forced to watch as the only person he ever loved marries Glokta, a man who is least deserving of his happy ending but seems to get one anyway. As one of the few characters who has anything resembling a heroic streak, I felt sorry for Jezal as he is essentially lied to and manipulated and by the end he is manipulated by a number of characters to ensure he stays in line. Although I never liked him too much it was saddening to see him suffer through circumstances so far out of his control.

Overall the novel seemed to have an open ending with a lot of plot threads left hanging. This is an intentional attempt at playing with the idea that not everything has to wrap up neatly. In fact a lot of plot threads are left intentionally open such as Bayaz’s conflict with Khalul, which he and Khalul will likely continue to fight through proxies long after the main characters are dead. It leaves the reader that the world will keep on turning even after they stop reading and that they just caught a glimpse of a large story as opposed to reading a full saga where everything is wrapped up in an orderly fashion. This is what gives the novel its charm in my opinion and I consider this to be a strong fantasy series as a result. It is not my all time favourite but is certainly one of the stronger trilogies I’ve read in a long while and it is highly likely that I will go on to read the standalone novels at some point in the future.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: CLEVER

The Crystal Desert (Julia Gray 2002)

The Crystal Desert

The Crystal Desert is the third instalment of Julia Gray’s Guardian Cycle, an epic fantasy series which has so far proven relatively mediocre. Despite this I am determined to keep going to the end, even though I have long since given up any hope of it turning into a masterpiece. Thus here I am, ready to review yet another instalment in the series. The Crystal Desert takes place, as the name implies, in a desert. The story follows the journey of the protagonist Terrel, an enchanter who is trying to figure out his role within the Tindaya Code, a prophecy which tells of a Guardian which will save the world. In connection to this prophecy are elementals, powerful beings which exist in the far corners of the world with great powers over nature. Terrel has tracked on such elemental to a mountain within the desert. Yet the tribal politics of the desert do not make this journey simple and Terrel finds his journey more perilous than ever before.

Like before the novel introduces a brand new land. I have to say I was quite fond the desert setting. The lifestyle of the people living in it was interesting to say the least and I always wanted to read a fantasy novel heavily featuring a desert setting. Granted I would have vastly preferred to see this setting in a novel with a decent plot but the setting itself did give the novel some brownie points. The main drawback really was the tribal politics. Since we’ve been introduced to so many one off characters doomed to disappear by the end of their respective novels I found it hard to care for the politics of the tribes introduced in this novel. The frequent shifts in setting in the series as a whole have made it hard for me to care about what happens in these places since all I care about as a reader is when the hell Terrel will get home and actually make some progress with the main plot.

While I found myself fond of certain characters, they disappeared for quite a long period somewhere around the halfway mark, which disappointed me somewhat. Jax, Terrel’s brother seems to come across as a bit petty in this book, doing things for seemingly arbitary reasons. I wonder if there was some element to his motives which I didn’t understand but at the moment he just seems a bit petty evil. There is also the matter that once again he is only seen when he talks to Terrel from a distance or possesses Terrel in a moment of weakness. One of my most frequent complaints of the series as that the major characters in the series as a whole never actually interact with Terrel in person, with his comatose girlfriend, Alyssa being the second chief offender here. How long will I have to wait to see any of these people in person again?

The main plot of this series is still confusing as hell. I’m still not sure what evil Terrel is supposed to be fighting against. As far as I’m aware the plot of the series so far has been him going around, freeing and negotiating with elementals which happen to be causing random natural disasters in whatever location they happen to be in. This book seemed to do something different by having one of the problems faced in this book, a plague, spread to other countries, including Terrel’s home country. This created a subplot where characters feared what would happen if Jax’s parents died, allowing him to take control of the country, thus giving Terrel additonal motivation to find the elemental and stop the plague. Yet, I have to criticise this too since Terrel has to deal with this problem despite being on the other side of the world and no point of view segments ever show how the plague is affecting life on the other side of the world. Instead Terrel hears of this through other characters such as Alyssa. This disappointed me, as I felt like the story had missed an opportunity to physically reunite the audience with some of the characters back in Terrel’s homeland.

It annoyed me that the main plot of the book was still unclear despite the fact that we are now over halfway through the five book series. The series as a whole doesn’t seem to have a clear antagonist yet, aside from Jax’s morally ambiguous actions which may or may not have Terrel’s best interests at heart. As a whole the book seemed to have a few intriguing moments but I still felt like everything was a bit confusing. To be honest, the entire book mostly felt like padding, at least in terms of the main plot and I am starting to wonder if it was necessary for the Guardian Cycle as a whole to be five books long. Maybe I’m just overthinking things but one thing for certain is that the plot is still quite dragged out and boring.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: CONFUSING

The Stake (Richard Laymon 1990)

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Richard Laymon is a horror writer of some repute and one whose name I keep encountering on a regular basis while browsing the relevant sections of the web. Hence, when I saw his novel The Stake in my local charity shop I couldn’t resist buying it. The premise is deceptively simple. Larry Dunbar, his wife and friends go adventuring in a hotel located in a Californian ghost town. There they discover a dead body of a naked female in a coffin hidden under some stairs. The body in question has a stake in it, raising questions as to whether or not the girl was in fact a vampire. Larry becomes increasingly obsessed with the body and the stake and begins to see the girl in his dreams, urging him to undo the stake. Meanwhile in his waking life he vows to uncover the mystery behind the girl in the coffin and catch the person who murdered her.

The Stake is a very unusual horror novel in that for most the novel the horror remains low key. The stake in the girl’s body remains intact for most of the novel, with the climax building up to its removal. The main conflict steams from Larry’s investigations into the girl with the stake in her heart, whom he learns is called Bonnie. The supernatural elements are handled in a very ambiguous manner for most the novel, with everything possibly having a natural explanation. The dreams that Larry has are partially attributed to stress and are simply the reflections of his growing obsession with Bonnie. Likewise it the novel is reluctant to answer whether or not Vampires are real until a scene at the very end, with the resident vampire hunter being portrayed as delusional and psychotic. Said vampire hunter is one of the main antagonists of the novel as opposed to Bonnie, a twist I found rather enjoyable. In the end it turns out that Bonnie is indeed a vampire but does not awaken until the last scene.

In some respects the story felt a bit Scooby Doo like since I thought the story was going to build up to a reveal that Bonnie was just an innocent victim of a delusional man who believes he is hunting vampires. In some respects she still is even after the reveal since it is revealed that the hunter was after the wrong vampire but the point is that I thought it was just a murder mystery with a bit of horror dressing. Larry and his friends seemed to form a Scooby Doo like gang at the beginning as well which seemed to reinforce this belief. While it is a great deal more mature, with a lot of strong themes, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the show. So much so that when Bonnie turned out to be a real vampire it came as a genuine shock to me.

Character wise the story is really about two people, Larry and his daughter Lane. Larry is an author, one of the most tried and tested clichés I’ve come to see in modern horror because apparently a lot of authors have difficulty writing protagonists who aren’t based off themselves. As a character though he was still interesting, with his growing obsession with Bonnie giving us a good glimpse into his flawed psyche. Lane meanwhile is just a stereotypical teenage brat with a bit of a rebellious streak. She becomes sexually involved with Kramer, her teacher who is secretly a manipulative sexual predator who targets girls in his class. This subplot is kind of disturbing and to be honest I found it quite unnecessary since it doesn’t have any relevance to the main plot until near the end, but even then the plot lines don’t intersect in a satisfactory fashion. Kramer in my opinion was just another random antagonist introduced for the sake of giving Lane her own subplot, when in reality Lane should have been integrated into the main plot more. I was half expecting Kramer to have some relevance to mystery of Bonnie in some way so I was disappointed that all he seemed to be was a random killer.

Overall the novel was well done but I couldn’t help but feel that Lane’s subplot dragged it down, in part because it seemed so irrelevant that the novel could easily have functioned without it. I thoroughly enjoyed the various twists and turns in the plot and the psychological horror like tone it seemed to operate under. This was one of the rare novels where the classical horror elements actually came about as a twist and fuelled the tension, even though Bonnie is not the main threat and is dead for most of the novel. Despite its flaws I enjoyed and a breath of fresh air when compared to other works in the horror genre I’ve read recently. This is probably one of the better horror novels I’ve read in recent years, and with good reason.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: CLEVER

Before They Are Hanged (Joe Abercrombie 2007)

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Before They Are Hanged is the second book of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy. It continues where the previous book left off, following the same cast of six point of view characters as their stories continue. Glokta, one of the major point of view characters of the previous novel, has his story continue as Superior, where he is ordered to help fortify the city of Dagoska against a Gurkish invasion. However he must also root out traitors, including the murderer of his predecessor and does not know who to trust. Meanwhile Logen Ninefingers, Ferro and Jezal dan Luthar travel with the mysterious wizard Bayaz on his journey to the Edge of the World. Meanwhile Collem West and the Dogman fight a battle against Bethod’s forces, being forced to command under the incompetent leadership of Crown Prince Ladisla, who quickly proves himself to be a hindrance.

The most notable aspect is the shift in the way the point of views have been handled. The narrative has been streamlined, with many point of view characters been lumped together into single journeys. This leaves us with Logen, Jezal and Ferro in one group, travelling together and West and Dogman in another. This works to the narrative’s benefit since it keeps the narrative focused into three main plotlines, Glokta’s storyline, Bayaz’s group and West’s group. Hence, even though there are a lot of point of view characters with various degrees of billing, the storyline is still easy to follow.

In terms of plot the stories were all well thought out and clever, with Glokta having to make some difficult decisions to keep the Gurkish out of the Dagoska and West struggling with his growing contempt for Prince Ladisla as he and Dogman’s group of mercenaries try and keep the crown prince safe following a battle. I have a few gripes, though minor. I felt like Glokta’s story lacked a climax since the conflict seemed to disappear after Sult ordered him back to the capital to leave Dagoska to its fate. His moral gripes with arresting an innocent man seem nothing compared to having to deal with a siege. Likewise with Bayaz’s journey I felt like the whole thing was kind of pointless since nobody really got anything out of it in the end since Bayaz had been trick. It was like one big shaggy dog story and its bearing on the overall plot wasn’t entirely clear aside from its exposition regarding Bayaz’s past and the conflict between him and his rival Khalul.

In terms of character some of the smaller point of view characters get more billing than they did in the previous novel. Ferro gets more development, including a strange romance of sorts of Logen Ninefinger which I enjoyed despite the fact that it wasn’t going to last. She comes into her own as a character a bit more, which I enjoyed. Likewise, Collem West got a lot of development, being the driving point of view character in one of the story’s major plot threads. He is more than the support character he was in the previous book and his character is more clearly established. The only character which doesn’t get this development with Dogman, mostly because he shares a lot of scenes with West, who tends to outshadow him as a character. I still feel like he is a bland character, being a typical rough mercenary type character. I like that he gets a role in a major story arc but to me I feel like he fits better as a support character.

Overall this was a very enjoyable novel, though I am unsure if I enjoyed it as much as the first. This is mostly because one of the major plotlines, specifically Bayaz’s journey, kind of fell flat in my mind and ended on a bit of an anti-climax. Character wise there was a huge overall improvement however, with many of the major characters remaining strong and many side characters coming onto their own. Glokta in particular remained a very entertaining character to see and my intrigue about Bayaz’s goals has only increased with every chapter into his party’s journey. A good book despite it’s weak points and I am certain that the last book in the trilogy will be a strong one.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: GREAT