The Talisman (Stephen King & Peter Straub 1984)

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The Talisman is another book by Stephen King, a collaboration with fellow author Peter Straub. I picked it up out of impulse like a lot of Stephen King books. The book itself is unusual in that it isn’t a straight up horror but rather a work of fantasy with occasional horror elements in it. This is unusual fare for both King and Straub since both are horror writers. As a reader of fantasy novels this intrigued me a lot. The novel follows Jack Sawyer, a twelve year old boy who sets off on a quest to find the titular talisman, which has the power to save his mother from dying. The quest takes him in and out of a land known as the Territories, a land set in a universe parallel to America where everyone has a “twinner” a duplicate who is a parallel for somebody in our world. Throughout his journey his must deal with the villainous Morgan Sloat, a former business partner of his father’s, and his twinner Morgan of Orris.

The book was very interesting. The world of the Territories was interesting especially with its parallels to the real world. The concept of people having twinners in the Territories was interesting and one that never failed to impress. Everyone in the real world has these little things about them which connect them to their Twinner’s identity and role in the Territories. The most clever examples are between Jack’s mother and the Queen of the territories, her Twinner and Morgan and his Twinner. Jack’s mother is an actress and one of her roles bring to light the connection between her Twinner’s identity as the Queen. In addition to this both are dying. Interestingly both Morgan and his Twinner are trying to steal something from Jack’s Mother/ The Queen. In the case of the former, Morgan wants her dead husband’s business while Morgan of Orris seeks to steal control of the Territories from the Queen.

In terms of characters Jack himself is kind of boring. His travelling companion Wolf was interesting in part because of his status as a werewolf and his unique way of speaking, which made him an instant hit in my opinion. ack’s friend Richard, who joins him later into the novel is quite annoying in comparison in part because he is next to useless and if anything his presence creates more conflict for Jack. In terms of villains Morgan Sloat is interesting but falls into the overly monstrous villain archetype that so many Stephen King villains fall into. The standout villain in the piece is Robert “Sunlight” Gardener, an extreme evangelical Christian who runs an evil orphanage where the kids are either horribly oppressed and brainwashed by Gardener. Although by no means a major character, he had a standout charisma about him which made him a charismatic and strangely threatening villain throughout Jack’s stay in Gardener’s school. Although Gardener plays second fiddle to Morgan Sloat towards the end of the book I still admire the characters due to how he was portrayed back in the school even if his appearance in the climax was a bit disappointing.

Prose wise I was impressed by how well the two authors worked together. Although I have not read any Peter Straub books, and thus am not familiar with his style, I am familiar enough with the style of Stephen King. I could not tell which parts had been written by whom and the whole novel flowed perfectly, as though it had been by one person almost. Thus I was impressed by how well the two authors had worked together to create such a narrative. There were a few bits towards the end where the plot got a bit confusing, with the introduction of various other realities but they didn’t affect things too much overall.

The novel works well as a work of fantasy and despite it’s status as such there are elements of horror within the setting, with elements of the daylight horror that King is so well known for creeping into parts such as Jack’s stay in Gardener’s school. Thus I’d say that the novel can be classified under the Dark Fantasy banner. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and I particularly enjoyed the way the fantasy world of the Territories blended together with the real world. It wasn’t my favourite of Stephen King’s works but it is a strong book and one that will no doubt influence my own writing. I will likely read this again at some point. I will recommend this not only to fans of King and Straub but also to any fantasy fan who wants to read something a bit different.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: CLEVER

Memories of Ice (Steven Erikson 2001)

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Memories of Ice is the third book in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I’ve been reading through the series at a decent pace and in fact finished reading Memories of Light a few weeks ago. The book follows a lot of the same characters from the previous book and is more of a sequel to the first book than the actual second book in the series, Deadhouse Gates. The book continues to follow the story of the Bridgeburners and their new allies in their fight against the growing threat of the Pannion Domin. In the midst of all this comes the rise of the mysterious Silverfox, a young girl who ages rapidly and claims to be a flesh and blood Bonecaster for the T’Lan Imass , a race of undead. All the while the Crippled God manipulates things behind the scenes towards his own end, as the war with the Pannion Domin comes to a head.

The novel features the welcome return of many characters including, Whiskeyjack, Ganoes Paran, Quick Ben and Toc the Younger. Yet the standout character which intrigued me the most had to be Silverfox, who claims to possess the reborn souls of previous character Tattersail and Nightchill, with each of their personalities taking turns coming to the forefront. Yet she is unique in that she is considered to be her own person and identifies with neither of the two souls in her, instead being some kind of middle ground between the two. This is to the dismay of Ganoes Paran, the former lover of Tattersail who is forced to accept that Tattersail has not truly come back from the dead and that Silverfox is somebody else.

I also welcomed the continuing insight into the various gods and deities and their role in the plot, in particular the series’ villain the Crippled God. The Crippled God desires to escape his prison by poisoning Burn, the sleeping goddess whose death would lead to the destruction of all humanity. The Crippled God’s role behind the scenes becomes more prominent, with characters such as Quick Ben discovering more about the Crippled God’s role within the conflict. In particular the roles of other characters in the conflict’s past come to light as well, which I found interesting to say the least.

In terms of plot the work suffers the typical problem faced with long books, slow pacing. Like the previous book, Memories of Ice seemed to suffer from slow pacing in parts and this works against it. In terms of point of view characters the book was easier to follow since a lot of them carried over from the first book. Yet the influx of new characters in the plot was still hard to keep track of, though I’ll admit I didn’t suffer with it in the same way I did with Deadhouse Gates. Despite this I thoroughly enjoyed the climax, with a lot of unexpected twists which I wasn’t expecting and really hammered in the direction that the series was going to take. There was one major character which hit home for me. I shall not spoil it for the sake of those who may wish to read the series but I can tell you that this character’s death wasn’t one I was expecting to happen and the fallout and the betrayal that lead to it hit home the fact that dealing with the Crippled God isn’t going to be a cake walk.

I’ll admit that after reading the series a bit I have become more and more aware of the slow pacing and that there is a lot of “purple” prose, or rather prose that drags on too long, that is responsible for this. Despite this the work’s scale and sheer world building continue to intrigue me and I am intrigued by how the series will continue as I have been before. Overall I think this was a strong instalment for the series and I certainly had a better time reading it then I did the other books since I have adjusted to the formula somewhat. I am aware of the series’ flaws now but to my surprise I am still optimistic and I am hopeful that this optimism will last me for the entire series.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: GOOD

The Bone People (Keri Hulme 1984)

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The Bone People is the first novel of Keri Hulme, a New Zealand author whose parents were of Scottish, English and Māori descent. The latter in particular is important, since it informs a great deal of her novel, The Bone People. Despite the book winning the 1985 Booker Prize I had never heard of it until I heard somewhere that the protagonist was asexual, and I later learned that the author herself was asexual. Out of interest, I picked it up. The plot summary sounds simple enough. Kerewin Holmes, the protagonist, is a reclusive artist after the mute precocious child Simon P. Gillayley turns up at her home without warning. Despite her attempts otherwise she and the child bond and she, the child and Simon’s adoptive father Joe Gillayley come to form a close bond that transcends definition. However all is not perfect as it appears on the surface, as Joe is unable to cope with Simon’s unruly behaviour and secretly beats the child.

Despite the simplicity, the prose is very sophisticated. Amongst the most notable traits are a complex train of though prose style that is mostly told in third person, mostly through the eyes of Kerewin but increasingly through Joe’s and eventually Simon’s point of view as the story progresses. The thing that stands out is the format in which it potrays the characters thoughts, which are formatted distinctly from the rest of the prose text. The thoughts are indented so that they stand out. This works to keep them separate from the main text in a unique and stylish fashion, without having to resort to a more conventional technique such as italics. I’ll admit I was a bit confused by the style at first but once I got used to it I found it easy to follow.

However there was one aspect of the prose which I wasn’t too keen on, in part due to pragmatic reasons. As a writer I applaud Keri Hulme for using elements of the Māori language amongst the dialogue, especially since it fits with the novel’s connections to the Māori and creates sense of the immersion. However there is the slight problem that I cannot understand a word of the Māori language. Some phrases were translated in the glossary at the back, however I found it to be far from complete and I was left to fend for myself with regards to the meaning of certain basic words and phrases. Not a huge issue by any means, and I like how the words make the work sound intelligent. I just wish I could understand what they meant.

The plot itself keeps things simple but not without some problems of its own. I had some issues about whether or not Kerewin was too accepting of Joe’s abuse towards Simon and whether or not she should have forgiven Joe at the end. Joe in particular was a divisive character in himself, in part because of the child abuse. I found myself feeling sorry for him after he lost custody of Simon and he goes wandering into the wilderness but at the same time I also felt like he got exactly what he deserved. Yet the reconciliation scene at the end gave me mixed feelings, since I wondered to myself whether Joe deserved to have a part in the scene. Aside from this, I also found myself enjoying the various twists the novels thrown at me. Most enjoyable were those relating to Simon’s origins, and reveals about his identity. These were things I liked about the novel.The plotline of Kerewin and her cancer diagnosis came a bit out of nowhere however and I felt like it was thrown in just to make things harder for Kerewin in time for the book’s climax. Yet overall I still enjoyed the novel in terms of plot.

Overall the novel came across as very powerful and sophisticated, especially when it started to weave the characters’ personal dramas together with Māori mythology. The novel brings all the plot threads together in a fantastic fashion and while the prose isn’t always easy to follow due to its train of thought style and use of Māori language, it remains cohesive. I was a bit disappointed that the novel didn’t examine Kerewin’s asexuality as much as I would have hoped as I hoped the novel would discuss the issue in detail when compared to other instances of Asexuality in fiction such as Sherlock Holmes. In the end though, the themes diverted away from the characters’ sexuality and focused more and things such as family and isolation. At the same time I see it fitting that the book doesn’t make a big deal of Kerewin’s sexuality, when sexuality isn’t a big deal in her life in general. A great novel overall and one I would recommend to anyone who is willing to take the plunge and one that will truly make you question things.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: DEEP

Alyssa’s Ring (Julia Gray 2002)

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At last, we’re here. The end. I’ve been reading through The Guardian Cycle series for a while now. Alyssa’s Ring is the fifth and final book in the saga and to be frank I am glad to be finally done with the series because it has been one of the worst series I’ve had to endure in recent memory. At the very least, this is provided me with an endless list of things to complain about the reviews so in some respects it has been an absolute blast. The final book deals with the protagonist Terrel and his return to his homeland Vadanis where he is set to deal with his brother Jax. At the same time he is due to face his role within the prophecies Tindaya Code, whatever that may be. One way or another he is set to stop the world from falling into catastrophe.

All sounds promising in theory but you’d be surprised at how far this books screws up what on paper sounds like a somewhat satisfying ending to a mediocre series. I’ll start with the structure. It is essentially the same as the previous few books, Terrel ends up in some new place and hangs out with new people and does virtually but nothing for at least the first third of the book. I was disappointed that he did not return to Vadanis straight away and I felt like the book could have done more to set up the conflict within Vadanis by bringing Terrel back home quicker. If you ask me, bringing him home should be the first thing they did. Instead Terrel returns home approximately two thirds of the way into the book. The first two-thirds felt like filler and the climax that followed felt rushed and awkward.

On the subject fo the climax itself, it was understatement to say that I wasn’t too happy. I was hoping Jax would get some kind of redemption arc but instead he proves himself to be an even bigger dick than he was in the previous books, even turning out to be in league with the villain of the book. He is shown to be stupid, arrogant and full of himself up until the moment of his death. Even his death didn’t give me the satisfaction I was hoping for. For someone who was ultimately an antagonist I felt he was a poor character overall and efforts should have been made to make him either a stronger antagonist in his own right or make him into a full anti-hero instead because I felt he made for a poor villain as he was.

The book’s actual villain was introduced rather abruptly and it wasn’t too clear at first that he was going to be the main bad guy. His appearance at the end threw me off a bit since I didn’t think he was going to be the book’s antagonist. Even when this became apparent I didn’t think he commanded a strong enough presence in the narrative itself and was disappointed that he was basically thrown in at the end so that the story as a whole would have something resembling an antagonist for the final book when the stories prior haven’t done well when it comes to having strong antagonist characters.

The plot itself was still confusing and didn’t answer a lot, in part because it crammed most of the important information into the last section of the book. This lead to a situation where the plot suddenly crammed a series of half baked explanations for the series’ various questions in the space of a handful of chapters, mostly after the climax. It is an understatement to say that I found this somewhat disappointing. I was hoping that for the climax the book would give me some good payoff for the reading time but a lot of the twists they introduced were easily predicted and I had considered many of them already. It also left the question of the guardian’s identity ambiguous in the end, which bugged me since this was the one question I wanted answered above all else. I found myself thinking that the book’s end was more than a bit dull.

Overall the book was a disaster in my opinion. It didn’t even have the courtesy to break the formula of its predecessors to deliver a solid climax. Instead it stuck to the same old stuff and wrapped it up far too quick. It felt rushed and confusing. The characters were pretty much all lame. Terrel gets his boring happily ever after ending with his love interest with Alyssa and I’m left with more questions upon exiting than I went in. I knew this wasn’t going to be a masterpiece but this book falls short of even my lowest of expectations for the series. Everything just felt so uninspired. I cannot remember why I picked up the series and even now I cannot see what drew me to it. I am glad to be done with this book and the series as a whole. If nothing else the series has taught me how to spot bad fantasy and it will serve to better inform my fantasy purchases in the future. Now I can relax and move on from this disappointing reading episode of my life.

SCORE: 2.5/5

IN A WORD: DISAPPOINTING

Deadhouse Gates (Steven Erikson 2000)

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In record fashion I have already finished reading Deadhouse Gates, the second book in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. A long book in itself, even longer than the first one so I am quite proud of myself for achieving such a feat. The book follows on from the events of Gardens of the Moon, the first book, but for the most part it follows an entirely new cast of characters with only a handful of exceptions. The plot mostly takes place in the Seven Cities, a different location entierely to the first book. The key events revolve around a rebellion in the Seven Cities, inspired by the prophetess Sha’ik. The various characters, both familiar and unfamiliar are caught up in the events that follow. Meanwhile Fiddler, Kalam, Crokus, and Apsalar, characters returning from Gardens of the Moon travel with an agenda of their own.

Like before the plot is complex and throws you inside. The new cast and setting initially made it hard to follow what was going on and starting off was a similar experience to Gardens of the Moon. It wasn’t until the group containing Fiddler, Kalam and company came onto the scene that I started to understand things. However the story did add one major connection to the story of the first book through Felisin Paran. She is a new characters introduced in the book but also happens to be the sister of Ganoes Paran. As one of the first point of view characters we are introduced to, she helped ground the story by connecting it to Gardens of the Moon in a subtle way despite having a different plot and setting.

I’ll admit the plot got a bit dull in places, with a lot of travelling which felt a bit filler like. It introduced some good twists here and there. The most notable included Felision taking up the mantle of Sha’ik towards the end and the god Shadowthrone and his assistant the Rope turning out to be the previous emperor whom Empress Laseen overthrew in the backstory, Kellenvad and his subject Dancer. The latter in particular came as a surprise and put a new light on Shadowthrone’s involvement in the previous book, since before I had no clear grasp of motives. I liked the twists and turns in the story very much and like to see where the story will follow on from this.

Character wise the sheer number of characters meant that quite a lot of the characters in the narrative came across since they have not had as much time spent developing their characterisation. This problem occurs mostly with the totally new characters introduced to the narrative. A notable exclusion to this is Felisin who is shown to develop a strong personality to the point where I considered her a strong character overall. Something about her told me she was likely a big player so her becoming Sha’ik at the end was a fitting way to bring her story within the novel to a close and I am interested to hear more from her. Overall though I had a bit of difficulty following the new point of view characters in this novel and I would have vastly preferred it with we spent more time with people from the previous novel so we had more time to get to know them better. The group of characters from the previous novel we do encounter are fairly minor characters in my opinion, with the exception of Crokus so I found myself somewhat disappointed that they were the only ones I met.

The novel was more of the same but I can definitely say that I had more trouble following the shift in cast. Steven Erikson certainly has the talent to make certain characters memorable, as evidenced by Felisin but in this novel I couldn’t find it in me to get behind most of the cast. In terms of plot Deadhouse Gates had a few good moments but as with many long books it struggled with pacing issues and it could easily have been half its length and still be enjoyable. Not a bad book by any means but a little bit of a disappointment. Yet, there is still enough in it to make me a bit more hopeful for then next novel, which I also look forward to reviewing.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: OKAY