House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski 2000)

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House of Leaves is one of them strange, deep books which defies all explanation. It contains a great number of hidden meanings within its text. With regards to genre there are a number of ways to classify the novel. First and foremost it is a horror which frequently straggles into the psychological horror territory. It is also an off the wall commentary on fiction in general and as such could also be classified as a work of metafiction. The narrative is a multi layered narrative, with many different narrative threads working within each other.

The first narrative is that of a man named Johnny Truant, who discovers a manuscript written by a man named Zampanò, which appears to be a report on a documentary film known as The Navidson Record, but Navidson cannot find any record of its existence. Truant’s narrative focuses on his personal life and his investigations into the report. The second narrative is the report itself, which analyses the fictional Navidson Record, the record of Will Navidson as he makes investigations into his haunted house which changes shape on a whim, sometimes creating large labyrinths which can trap unsuspecting people for days on end.

Ironically enough we, as readers never experience The Navidson Record itself despite its importance to the novel’s layered narratives. Instead we see it primarily through Zampanò’s analysis of the film, which details certain key scenes within the documentary, as well as analysing them. Curiously this analysis is structured in a format similar to a proper academic text, with references to sources both real and fake scattered throughout the pages. This created a novel structure for the novel from the get go and there was an element of mystery and guessing involved by never directly showing any scenes from the documentary, which I liked.

I likewise enjoyed it when the book started to lose its meds. Around the halfway point the book starts to shift from a conventional epistolary novel about The Navidson Record to a complex layered and fragmented narrative as the narratives of both Zampanò and Truant become increasingly complex. In Zampanò’s case there is a literal fragmentation of the narrative, where the pages would take on unusual formatting styles. Some pages would be sorted into blocks of texts with strange positions of the page. Some would even be upside down, rotated sideways or could only be read with a mirror. It was a very confusing but very unique experience and one that truly questioned what a book could truly be capable of.

There were also certain instances later on which used the text’s formatting to create imagery inside the reader’s head, using increasingly smaller blocks of texts containing a handful of words to create claustrophobia and lines of text forming a ladder going downwards while one of the characters travels downwards whilst exploring the house’s labyrinth. These were the most unique elements of the novel’s narrative despite it venturing into mind screw territory as to why the in universe text is formatted in that way, especially since this occurs in Zampanò’s narrative, which is supposed to be an academic text of some description. Yet I found the use of text format to add to the narrative so novel that I found myself thoroughly enjoying those segments of the book.

As for the other elements of the book, Truant’s narrative seems to tailor off into random ramblings and details of his exploits, as well as his eventual mental decline. I can’t say I enjoyed his segments in the end since they didn’t experiment with formatting in the same way Zampanò’s narrative did and at times were simply long blocks of confusing text. At times it was hard to discern if there was any larger meaning to it all beyond the fact that Truant was going a bit mental. Despite this it was still easy to get behind him as a character and I empathised with a lot of experiences as details of his past came to light. As the novel progressed I realised that the novel was as much about him and his experiences as it was about The Navidson Record and that helped me understand his role in the narrative more.

Overall the novel is very experimental and isn’t afraid to play around with unusual narrative techniques to get its point across. At times it can get confusing, particularly when Zampanò goes into the hard academic elements of his report or when Truant goes off on a tangent. In both cases though it serves to add character by reminding the reader as to why these characters are writing. Zampanò is writing a report and thus the analysis is a key way of reminding the reader that they are in fact reading what is intended to be an academic work, while Truant’s writing is intended to be a sort of therapy and thus he says whatever comes into his head. This novel is probably one of the best I’ve read in a long time and a strong work that strays heavily into metafiction and beyond, so much so that horror is hardly an adequate label for such a work. This is a true work of modern literature and one I will undoubtedly come back to sooner or later.

SCORE: 4.5/5

IN  A WORD: DEEP

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Gardens of the Moon (Steven Erikson 1999)

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Gardens of the Moon is the first novel of The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The series is an Epic Fantasy in terms of scope, with a humongous cast of characters that makes the likes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series look tame in comparison. The tale also contains elements of Dark Fantasy since the world is considerably darker than the typical Epic Fantasy series, and there is a lot of moral ambiguity and politics at play within the plot when compared to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, where the politics is relatively black and white. Instead, the politics is more like from, again, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and drives a significant portion of the plot despite magic and gods still playing a large role in the overall plot. In terms of plot the novel is hard to explain since there are so many different plot threads to talk about. However the novel centres around the city Darujhistan and the invasion by the elf like Tiste Andii, as well as the increasingly tyrannical rule of Empress Laseen, the head of the Malazan Empire.

The novel centres around a huge number of characters, too many to name. However the most notable include Sergeant Whiskeyjack, a general, Ganoes Paran, a thief named Crokus to name but a few. The novel initially fools the reader into believing that Paran is the protagonist but it quickly becomes apparent that he is not after he is sidelined in favour of other characters as the novel progresses. This was one of many twists relating to characters in the novel. Another entertaining twist, is one concerning a man named Kruppe, who is initially presented as a moron who frequently refers to himself in third person but is revealed to be much smarter than he appears. Likewise another favourite was Anomander Rake, the leader of the Tiste Andii and the man who at first glance appears to be the novel’s antagonist. However as the novel progresses he is portrayed in a sympathetic light to the point where by the novel ended I realised that he was probably a hero in his own right.

In terms of plot, then novel tends to throw you right into the thick of it. It takes you straight into the action and makes no effort to explain what is going on. Thankfully the book is kind enough to provide a glossary and dramatis personae page which helped me keep track of who everyone was and which factions they belonged to. This was not as much of a problem to me as a reader as I expected it to be, since despite the confusion at the beginning and a few lingering questions towards the end, I found it quite fun to read and a lot of it began to make sense towards the end.

The plot contained a great number of twists and turns, some more expected than others and that was what made if enjoyable more than anything. A matter of particular interest was the involvement of the settings myriad of gods and their various servants, which made the novel more complex and made me curious as to why they were there. Yet the most enjoyable little twist was the Bridgeburners, the primary faction that the novel has focused on, deciding to rebel against Empress Laseen in a twist which seemed inevitable but at the same time promises to change the plot of the upcoming novels in a significant way, though to what extent I have yet to know.

As a whole Gardens of the Moon was a strong start to what promises to be a strong series. The overall picture for the direction the series is going to take isn’t entirely clear yet, though I get the impression that the gods will be involved in it somehow. Aside from that, my only criticism is that it can be a bit too complex at times but the series was never intended for the casual fantasy reader to begin with and if you go into it knowing of the series’ complexity in advance you can still get a lot out of it. I somehow enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected to, in part because of how rich and detailed the world is. I can’t wait to read the rest of the Malazan series and see this humongous series through to the end.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: COMPLEX

The Red Glacier (Julia Gray 2002)

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The Red Glacier is the fourth novel in the Guardian Cycle, which I have been reading. The book in itself was nothing too fancy, similar to the others and I was half tempted to abandon it but I am determined to review the full series so I resolved to press on. The book follows on after the last one. Terrel finds himself in the land of Myvatan where a brutal conflict wages the land, and only the land’s wizards seem to know the cause. Terrel goes about learning the location of the elemental but his progress is repeatedly impeded by the conflicting forces. To make matters worse the elemental itself is shaping up to be the deadliest challenge he has yet to face.

Like before the plot starts out slow. Terrel spends a lot of time hanging about with the new local characters in the new location he has travelled to. The main difference is that this time it isn’t entirely clear who he should be trusting since the people are involved in a civil war with a multitude of different agendas. In fact most of the novel is Terrel hanging around with people in the war. The disadvantage is that the whole war plotline seemed a bit convoluted. Perhaps it is because it all revolves around characters new to the story, meaning I’m not particularly invested in the people fighting on either side of the conflict. My only wish when navigating these parts was that Terrel would find a way to get to the elemental already, a feeling that I’m no stranger too since I had similar attitudes towards the previous two novels.

In terms of structure the novel is a carbon copy of the other two. Terrel meets new people. Terrel hangs around new people and tried to find the elemental’s location then deals with antagonistic forces who have some relation to the elemental. Then finally he enters a climax where he has to stop the elemental from destroying the land it is in. This is basically all he does at the core. While the conflict between the various forces puts Terrel in more danger than ever before, the general structure remains the same with little to no variation. In that respect the book was rather boring and made the conflict seem rather superficial since I already had a feel for what was going to happen.

As for the overall plot I still have no idea what’s going on. This is kind of bad, when you consider that this is the second to last book. There should be something setting up the finale but instead all we get is something about Alyssa being sick and returning to Vadanis to help her. Nothing about his quest is any clearer and no clue is given as to the final threat Terrel will have to face in the next book. This was a huge let down to me, in part because I expected it would at least tell us a little bit about what the hell is going on before thrusting into the series’ conclusion. To say I was disappointed was a bit of an understatement.

Overall the novel is the same average stuff, more so than usual. In fact if anything it was disappointing because of it. Like I mentioned, this is in part because I expected some kind of foreshadowing about the next book. In my opinion the last book in a series should in some way set up the finale and give us a clue as to the final threat the characters will have to face. Then novel does none of that and I felt like it suffered a lot as a result. Reading the same plot over and over again has become very tiring and I hope that the last book will offer some kind of pay-off for all this monotonous drivel I’ve had to put up with. Overall I can’t say I’m too optimistic about its prospects.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: DISAPPOINTING

The Beating of His Wings (Paul Hoffman 2013)

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At last, it is time to review The Beating of His Wings, the third and final book in the Left Hand of God trilogy. When I first read this trilogy a few years ago I didn’t know what to think, especially when I finally finished this book. Now that it has been a few years I can say I finally have a solid opinion on this book. The book essentially continues where The Last Four Things left off. After learning that he has been raised as the Redeemer’s angel of death for sake of bringing about humanity’s extinction Thomas Cale has been on the run from the man who raised him to the position, Redeemer Bosco who has taken on the title of Pope and is more powerful than ever. As Thomas Cale’s soul begins to die his body is wrecked with convulsions. Yet this only makes him more determined to gather allies and take down Pope Redeemer Bosco once and for all.

One notable thing about this book is how complicated it is, even in comparison to The Last Four Things. It starts off with Thomas Cale recovering some mysterious illness which causes his body to suffer from convulsions which is apparently the result of his soul dying. To be honest the whole issue isn’t given any explanation at all, nor was there any foreshadowing in the previous novels which would imply something like this could happen. As the novel progresses this plotline becomes sidelined in favour of the battle with Bosco and is generally left without a satisfying conclusion. There is also the matter of how it has complicated the matter of Thomas Cale’s supernatural status since it isn’t clear if the illness is a supernatural phenomena connected to his position as the prophecised angel of death or if it is a natural illness. Needless to say the illness has done little to answer questions about Thomas Cale’s true nature.

As for the conflict against Redeemer Bosco, once the plot gets going it start to progress into a reasonably satisfying conclusion, though nothing worthy of mention. That being said though, this was just about the only plotline that got confusion and the whole angel of death business still confused me. As mentioned in the previous review, I also had a few questions as to how the Redeemers planned to kill all of humanity since even in this novel I got the impression that this should be too big of a task for any army. Not a perfect plot but at least the action towards the end was okay, with lots of violence and dark themes which I have come to enjoy in Dark Fantasy.

As far as characters go the same applies. Thomas Cale’s companions are as boring and generic as ever. Thomas Cale himself plunges further into committing dark deeds, more so than ever despite siding against the Redeemers and fighting with the rest of the “good guys” against the common enemy. One aspect I found disappointed was a new love interest. Initially I liked this since it seemed like he was moving on from his previous hang ups and would move on with his life. Ultimately it goes nowhere and the love interest is stuffed into the fridge by virtue of getting killed. Thus the whole affair just seemed kind of pointless since none of the potential for a solid character arc between the two ever paid off. Instead she became just another tool for creating a bit angst for Cale. In the end Cale does get a happy ending of sorts, though it seemed a bit low key compared to what could have been and seemed a bit disappointing.

As a whole the novel suffers from the same complication that its predecessor suffered from and brings it to a head with more complication in the form of Cale’s mystery illness. While the plot with the Redeemers got a satisfactory resolution in that the enemy was defeated and the threat ended but the mysteries about the illness and Cale’s true nature as a whole still weren’t resolved. To be honest I was hoping things would start to make sense by the time the book ended but in the end I just found myself asking more questions. This is a rare book in that it left me more confused about the lore about this world than it did when I started it. In fact with each book in this trilogy I’ve found myself becoming more and more confused. The book had some good points but a lot of the potential seemed to fall flat, just like the others.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: FLAWED

Update on Novel

I should update you on the novel I started writing at the beginning of July. My goal of creating a first draft as an unofficial Camp Nanowrimo) (or National Novel Writing Month) challenge was a success, much to my surprise. Though I would hesitate to call the novel finished, I have completed the first draft and have met my 50,000 word target. Since it is still  far from being a finished product I will not post too many details yet but rest assured I will be editing it very thoroughly over the coming months. I also have a few ideas for projects relating to the current one which I may also pursue depending on how things proceed.

I prefer to keep things quiet, particularly at this early stage of development, so I haven’t posted the novel on the official Nanowrimo site nor have I posted it anywhere else. It is likely to remain that way until the novel gets a publisher or when I begin to approach a final draft so please respect what will likely be months of silence on the project. For now I will continue updating the blog on a weekly basis since I want to give myself time to pursue these new creative avenues.