The Dead Zone (Stephen King 1979)

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Another Stephen King novel. I seem to be on a roll when it comes to Stephen King at the moment, so without any further delay let’s review The Dead Zone. The Dead Zone is a classic Stephen King horror which pushes the boundaries of the genre, to the point where wikipedia even describes it as a supernatural thriller, which given what I’ve read seems like a fair assessment. The book follows a young man, Johnny Smith who is sent into a coma for five years and wakes up with the ability to see people’s future whenever he touches them, an ability which he struggles to deal with. It also steadily propels him towards a confrontation with the dangerous politician Greg Stillson, whose ambitions seem to be never ending.

The plot starts out simple enough, focusing a bit on Johnny’s childhood and a pre-existing injury which appeared to play some role in the eventual development of his psychic abilities following his coma. It also introduces us to Greg Stillson during this time frame, showcasing his psychopathy. This was a nice touch and introduced the villain nice and early. Until the accident the novel mostly seemed to progress at a nice pace, setting everything up well. From the first moment you know that Greg Stillson is the villain, in part because he has all the traits of one with his psychopathy and tendency towards violence. After the accident I seemed to think that they spent a bit too much time focusing on the other characters and their story arcs in the years between the accident and Johnny waking up, in part because it seemed to delay the story’s main plot, though not to the point where it felt too boring.

In terms of point of view, we seemed to see too little of our main character in some parts, such as after the mentioned as I’ve just mentioned. However the later parts of the story more than make up for this but do so at the cost of relegating certain characters into extras, such as his ex girlfriend Sarah. We saw little bits of Greg Stillson here and there but overall he didn’t seem to get too much development and in the final leg of the novel we only saw what Johnny saw through his research and visions. As mentioned before he has all the traits of the villain, or rather all the traits of a Stephen King villain. As I’ve noticed before King likes to use sadist villains who are a bit over the top in their cruelty and some extent this ruined my immersion into their character, and this was also true of Greg Stillson.

I was also disappointed somewhat by the lack of development between Johnny and Sarah. The whole character arc seems to be about them being awkward around each other and dealing with lingering feelings, while dealing with the fact Sarah has moved on and married with a kid. Aside from a few scenes the story arc is left depressingly underdeveloped, and the events of the climax ensure that the couple never get any true closure aside from a single letter sent from Johnny to Sarah shown in the novel’s epilogue. The climax as a whole was fairly weak as well, offering the bare minimum closure and the way the confrontation was set up seemed arbitrary at times, like Johnny was compelled to confront Stillson by the power of plot. It raised some good themes though, especially the whole would you kill Hitler before he ever became a threat kind of debate that it raised.

The novel raised a lot of complex philosophical debates and in some ways I can’t help but compare the novel’s plot with Greg Stillson to the debate about Donald Trump and the US Elections at the moment. As a novel I can’t help but think that it was lacking a bit towards the end and it seemed to fall short on its promises, though it delivered a few good twists in the process. It was a decent novel but I wouldn’t say it was Stephen King’s best work. At times I think that maybe it could have been a bit shorter or improved in other little ways but overall I think it could have been worse.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: PHILOSOPHICAL

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The City & The City (China Miéville 2009)

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It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything by China Miéville but I am glad I picked up The City and The City. This novel is one of them strange novels which defies genre, being a mind bending mix between a police procedural, science fiction and fantasy. The premise is that of two cities Besźel and Ul Qoma, whom share the same geographical space and whose citizens have learned to block out knowledge of the other two cities. The novel revolves around Inspector Tyador Borlú and his investigation into what appears to be a routine murder which quickly turns to be more complex, with his investigation taking him between the two cities in a mind bending plot involving the mysterious secret police force, Breach, whom investigate instances where people “breach” from one city into the other, one of the gravest crimes in both cities and the supposed existence of a third city known as Orciny.

The book is anything but simple and it takes a while to get your mind around the concepts displayed within, especially the way the two cities interact and the way Breach works. The premise itself is a very strange once, in part because despite this Besźel and Ul Qoma are otherwise normal cities set in the real world with supposed connections to the rest of the world. It was also interesting to see how the two cities developed culturally to make unseeing the other city easier, such as one city always being a generation behind in terms of technology. These little details made the cities feel real. This is aside from the obvious fact that we are following a member of Besźel’s law enforcement, which is portrayed just like you would expect a real life police agency would.

In terms of criticism I had to say it was initially difficult to pick out the stranger aspects of the novel since the details such as the two cities sharing the same space and things such as Breach are introduced only gradually, with the story starting out a bit like a simple police procedural. This tricked me a little bit but also left me confused since I knew there were fantasy/ science fiction elements in the book prior to reading it. In the long run this realistic approach cemented a sort of magical realism feel but at the start it just left me confused.

The novel picked up its pace after a few bits of confusion at the beginning and once I understood the concepts of Breach and the two cities I began to enjoy the novel a lot more, with the various politics within the city playing a huge role. There were many twists and turns in the novel and I have to say a lot of them I didn’t see coming. Like many novels which cover complex topics the novel lost its meds around the climax. I can’t go into detail without giving out huge spoilers but generally the climax went into heavy territory, raising new questions while at the same time only half explaining them. A lot of the main plot still made a bit of sense but I still found myself reeling, trying to get my head around some things.

This novel was still strong and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read something a little different. In fact I will likely reread it again at some point in the future to see if I can gain a better understanding of it now that I know more of the main plot. I liked reading this novel and within a few chapters I had already forgotten about my confusion with the opening, a testament to Miéville’s gripping prose. The novel covered a lot of the stuff I expected from a China Miéville novel and was everything I imagined it to be. Like many of Miéville’s stuff it’s very different and something worth reading for anyone who wants to do anything a bit different with their science fiction and fantasy. This novel is so genre bending that both science fiction and fantasy fans alike will gain something from reading this.

SCORE: 4.5/5

IN A WORD: CLEVER

The Power of Dark (Robin Jarvis 2016)

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This one is a bit more obscure than most the books I review and this is in part because this is a book which I picked up on holiday in Whitby, a popular seaside town in the Yorkshire Moors for those who do not know about it. The novel is a young adult/children’s fantasy novel set in Whitby and thus the novel is of local interest to the region. However for the sake of objectivity I will disregard my personal attachment to its setting. The book follows two kids, Lil and Verne and the last Whitby witch Cherry Cerise as they battle against returning magical forces, as a magical artefact known as the Nimius resurfaces and threatens the town with its power. Meanwhile the enigmatic Mister Dark, who appears to be at the centre of events that occurred in the town’s past, enters the stage to take advantage of the growing chaos.

The novel is interesting in places. It had an interesting premise, with a conflict between an ancient witch Scaur Annie and inventor gentleman Melchior Pyke being the focus of the novel. The way the past and the present connect together was interesting and the information was gradually drip fed in a way that made the revelations genuinely shocking and well timed with the novel’s climax. The use of flashback to show us Scaur Annie’s point of view, through Lil’s dreams, served as an interesting plot device though I wonder if the author used them a bit too often.

A problem with the novel is that it takes its time to get going and at the beginning of the novel most of the action happens through flashbacks while things in the present remain relatively peaceful. In fact the present stays mostly quiet except for a segment at the beginning and the novel’s climax. To be fair the novel’s climax was a decent one, though it ended rather abruptly, the build up was good and the revelations it brought were great. The conflict between Scaur Annie and Melchior Pyke and the way it continued into the modern day was a key moment of the novel for me and one that was worth the build up.

My one issue is that both Lil and Verne were passive as protagonists, especially in the climax. This was in part because of the way they both ended up possessed by Scaur Annie and Melchior Pyke and becoming their proxies in the war. As a result Cherry Cerise seems to do most the work during the climax. This was disappointing since Lil and Verne were the protagonists in my eyes so for them to be so passive in the end was a huge disappointment considering the amount of time we spent with them in the build up. Ultimately their entire character arc involved them getting possessed by two people who had been dead for centuries and becoming their meat puppets in their battle against each other. At first I was a bit intrigued by how they built up to this, with subtle changes in their personality but once they became possessed I wasn’t too keen.

Mister Dark was an all right villain for the book but was a bit of a generic evil type with no real personality except being a bit manipulative. I didn’t like him too much. A lot of the other characters seemed a bit meh as well, such as the girl Tracy whom Mister Dark manipulates. Not only does she come across as bratty and one dimensional but also a bit stupid for falling for Mister Dark’s obviously evil “I’m going to be your boyfriend” act. On a less serious note I also get the feeling the author hates goth because a lot of them seem to rave on about darkness, although there is plausible deniability here since most of the worst cases of this only occur in the climax when everyone in the town goes a bit crazy due to the influences of Mister Dark, Scaur Annie and Melchior Pyke.

Overall the novel is decent and if I ever see the sequel on the shelves I will pick it up just to see where the story goes. The novel isn’t perfect however and it took a while to get the good stuff. It struggled a bit in making the modern day Whitby interesting and it would have improved by having less flashbacks and instead have more action occur in the modern day instead. As someone who has been to Whitby I liked the way the novel blended itself in with the themes and gothic culture that is present in the town and the way it almost hangs a lampshade on it all. I will be keeping an eye on this author, that is one thing for certain.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: OKAY

House of Chains (Steven Erikson 2002)

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House of Chains is the fourth book in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, of which I have currently reviewed the previous three books. The fourth book continues where the others left off but first takes the time to introduce a new character named Karsa Orlong, a member of a bloodthirsty race known as the Teblor. He is introduced in a flashback segment of the book which takes place prior to the main events of the series. Then the novel flashes forward back to the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs, which occurred during the events of the second novel Deadhouse Gates. Thus the novel returns to Felisin, who now leads the Whirlwind rebellion as the new Sha’ik but internal conflicts threaten her rebellion. Meanwhile her sister and Adjunct to the Empress, Tavore, leads a force of mostly untrained Malazan soldiers into the desert to wipe out Sha’ik and her rebellion once and for all, unaware that she is fighting her own sister.

The story is very interesting. The irony of Felisin’s battle hardened sister not knowing that she is fighting her own blood was one that had my spine tingling. Tavore was admirable as a character in part because of her strength of character from the get go, as opposed to the gradual development Felisin went through during the second book. The ironic tragedy is one that had me feeling sorry for both characters in the end and made worse with the climax. Like the death of certain characters in Memories of Ice the climax of this story arc shocked me since while it seemed inevitable in hindsight, initially it came as a shock.

Karsa Orlong was a character whom I read about prior to reading the book and was excited to finally see him introduced. He didn’t disappoint, though like most times the book goes off on a tangent I initially found his little introduction story arc at the beginning difficult to follow. I found it clever how they tied him in with the main plot in the present due to how they hid him in plain sight the entire time. The thing I liked the most about him was how he and his culture as a whole seemed to deconstruct the barbarian fantasy, both the Conan the Barbarian archetype and the kind of environment they live in. He comes from a culture which, to put it bluntly, glorify raping and pillaging places. Karsa is no ray of sunshine either and would probably be the villain in any other novel. This was interesting since I always thought Conan inspired barbarian fantasy novels seemed a bit unrealistic portrayal of a ‘barbarian’ culture in my opinion so it was interesting for this novel to put its own little riff on the genre during the earlier parts of the book.

In terms of prose the novel is still the same. A bit too long and drawn out in places and it still suffers from the snail pace that a lot of doorstoppers suffer from. I complain about this a lot in part because I am not a particularly patient reader despite my love for long novels such as this. To me though it isn’t so much that the novel is long but rather feels like it is long. Long paragraphs of description and wordy dialogue. Another thing I have noticed, which I have not commented on in previous reviews is the effect the chapter lengths have on my reading experience. The book has long chapters, with only twenty-six chapters over the course of a thousand page books. As a result some of these chapters get long, especially toward the climax. The point of view frequently shifts during these long chapters, which makes things confusing. I wonder if the novel would be improved more if rather than shift point of view frequently during a single chapter they instead made it so they divided these shifts of point of view into single shorter chapters instead.

The series is certainly strong as ever, despite me becoming aware more of the technical limitations brought about by Steven Erikson’s shaky prose and chapter lengths. I love this series and I feel as though there is great potential for a strong work of fantasy. As I’ve mentioned before the novel overcomes it’s shortcomings to provide a compelling narrative. Once more I can safely say I’m looking forward to reviewing the next novel. This work challenges a lot of the conventions in fantasy and provides a compelling family drama as one of its key plots and as a result I can’t help but admire it.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: DRAMATIC