The Tombs of Atuan (Ursula K. Le Guin 1971)

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The Tombs of Atuan is the second book of the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin. I have only reviewed the first one recently and I was surprised by how quickly I read through the sequel. The book wasn’t too long and the chapters were of a nice length, and so here I am to give my verdict. The book follows a girl Tenar, who is stolen from her family to become High Priestess in service to the ‘Nameless Ones’ and is renamed Arha. She is embroiled in the political conflicts of older priestesses Thar and Kossil, eventually coming into conflict with the latter. However her life is eventually shaken up when Ged, the protagonist of the previous books ventures in the labyrinth in search of the lost half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, an item which can bring peace to Earthsea.

Like A Wizard of Earthsea the book is a coming of age story, only this time it surrounds Tenar rather than Ged, with the latter being more of a side character. I quite like Tenar as a character but at times she seems rather passive in her role in the plot, particularly after Ged comes onto the scene. After he arrives the story seems to shift to him trying to convince her that he is friendly and ultimately, to leave with him and abandon her role as priestess.

The story seemed to take a while to get going and but once it did it became intriguing. The addition of an antagonist, Kossil was interesting when compared to the more internal antagonist of the shadow from the previous book. In some ways she’s sort of Tenar’s shadow since she is corrupt and blatantly misusing her power to create suffering for the people of the kingdom. My one problem is her lack of role in the climax and the overall lack of climax to the conflict between her and Tenar, which seems to come to an abrupt deus ex machina end without too much of a direct confrontation in my opinion.

The story towards the end felt more like it was about Tenar and Ged and Tenar finally finding the strength to shake off the influence of the Nameless Ones and become herself again. It was an intriguing story until the ending but I feel like Guin could have provided us a bit of a payoff with regards to the other characters. I feel like some of them were rather abruptly forgotten about so that the main plot could progress and thinking back the ending leaves a lot unanswered.

The one positive is that the ending didn’t feel quite as abrupt when compared to that of A Wizard of Earthsea, but like that book the ending seems to be the weaker area. Maybe because I like books with a bit more substance, endings with unnecessary ambiguity can leave me feeling a bit cheated. Books which are intentionally written this way and feel like the ending was supposed to be ambiguous are fine with me but with Tombs of Atuan left me feeling like there should have been answers somehow. With certain areas such as the Nameless Ones I felt a bit confused and lacking in that department.

Overall the book is a brilliant book with some strong themes but the whole coming of age thing was something I had already seen in A Wizard of Earthsea and somehow the setting of this book felt a bit more limited. In some ways it has vastly i improved from its predecessor while in other ways I feel disappointed. I think I’d probably say the fact that I have mixed feelings makes it weaker than A Wizard of Earthsea overall. That being said Tenar was an interesting character so if she shows up in some fashion in the next couple of books I won’t be disappointed.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: OKAY

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Midnight Tides (Steven Erikson 2004)

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Midnight Tides is the fifth book of The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which I have become fond of reading as of late. When I say fond, I mean to say I have developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the series. In some ways the books are breathtakingly detailed but are often let down in a technical fashion. The plot of Midnight Tides is a bit different to the previous books, since the entire book is technically a prequel revolving around the far distant Kingdom of Lether, ruled by the ruthlessly expansionist Letherii. The only returning character is a Tiste Edur named Trull Sengar, whose background is explored in more detail. The plot deals mostly with the brewing conflict between the Letherii and the Tiste Edur tribes, who have been united by the Warlock King.

The book is once again set in a completely different setting with no connecting elements to the rest of the franchise except for the character Trull Segnar and series villain, the Crippled God. Like previous instances where the series has done this I struggled to get a grip with the plot and the numerous characters introduced. This is a recurring problem with the series and I find that I usually need a book or two with a particular character before I’m able to follow them easier. Despite this there were a few interesting diamonds in the rough amongst the slew of new characters the book expected me to understand and follow, in particular the major players in the plot such as Trull’s brother Rhulad Segnar and his character arc late in the book.

The plot itself took a bit of getting used to, in part because I had difficulty following the politics of both side due to my general lack of familiarity with both of them. Despite this the book still threw in a few interesting twists, particularly regard the Crippled God and his role in manipulating events. Rhulad’s story arc in particular stood out more and more as the story went on and the ultimate pay-off was worth seeing. However like many of the books before it, it took its sweet time getting there.

The book suffers a lot of pacing issues still, like the rest of the series. The combination of this and the unfamiliar setting made it all too tempting to fall asleep in the middle of reading. In terms of pacing it was no worse than the others, but it wasn’t any better either. The prose still drags out and I still think it could have benefited from trimming down the number of different characters in the point of view segments. I have likely mentioned this a number of times during these reviews but I do genuinely think that at times Erikson focuses on way too many characters. In fact at times I think that maybe even the books themselves only need to be a fraction of their actual length.

At times the book felt like a mixed reading experience. One chapter I would follow someone I liked, while another I would be back with another character whom I couldn’t quite get behind. It would alternate between being a clever, detailed book with lots of clever twists and being a boring slog. At times I had difficulty figuring out which side to root for since in my opinion both sides had their shades of grey in terms of morality, especially when compared with conflicts between factions in previous books. Overall I felt like this was a weaker entry and the series and it tried to slam too much into the reader’s throat all in one go, coupled with more than a few weak characters. Even so there are a few elements that caught my interest and I’m interested in where they’ll take some of these story arcs in later novels.

SCORE 3.5/5

IN A WORD: MIXED

A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin 1968)

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula. K. Le Guin is a novel which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. Hence I was lucky to find a collected edition containing the first four of the Earthsea books in a Waterstone’s during the summer. I was thus able to read A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time, and words cannot describe how I excited I was to finally have a chance to read it. The plot follows the young wizard Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, who follows a journey to discover himself after his arrogance leads to him summoning a shadowy creature which attacks him, propelling him to seek a way to be free of the creature.

Genre wise the novel is a fairly strong foray into the fantasy genre and magic features heavily into the plot, with Ged being a wizard himself. The magic system is very clever and fleshed out, and one of the more enjoyable parts of the novel. The concept of balance and wizards having to keep the balance, similar in some ways to Taoism. The novel in general follows a very ideological edge and it became apparent towards the end that the story wasn’t so much about the external conflict, but rather Ged’s internal conflict and his coming of age journey into manhood, symbolically speaking. His emotional growth plays an important part of his conflict and a lot of the story’s events are connected to this growth as a result.

The most interesting aspect of this was the way the two eventually came together in the form of Ged’s shadow. This also ties into the novel’s greatest twist, namely that Ged’s shadow is in fact part of himself. Throughout the novel it is assumed to be a powerful demon trying to possess him and nameless, however he is able to finally banish it by recognising it as a part of himself and accepting it. Thus the novel brings the external conflict of Ged’s shadow and ties it into the symbolic journey of Ged’s growth into manhood. This was an interesting twist and to me it brought the novel into a whole new dimension.

The one thing I did notice was the pacing. The novel seemed to have on okay pacing towards the beginning, a bit slow but considering the need to build up the setting and how interesting it was this was more than justified. Towards the middle I felt like the plot bounced around a bit, with no clear focus towards some parts of Ged’s journey. The novel also muddied the waters between its climax and its resolution, since the climax of Ged’s confrontation with the shadow takes place literally at the end of the novel. The novel kind of just ends after Ged defeats his shadow, with nothing but a few pages of the journey back to land and a brief moment of reverie before an abrupt end. I couldn’t help therefore that I was cheated out of some of the novel’s closure as a result since the novel ended so abruptly. Since I’m normally used to having at least a brief epilogue chapter before a story ends this came across as quite unusual to me and I’m not sure what to think about it. I like the climax itself for the twist, yet at the same time I can’t seem to get over how abrupt and how much of an anti-climax it seemed to be.

I still thoroughly enjoyed the novel and it was refreshingly different to all the young adult fantasy novels that have succeeded it and as a whole it has that unique blend between the children’s fantasy novel’s of old, such as the Chronicles of Narnia and the more modern day ventures into the genre. This novel to me strikes me as the perfect gap and is the archetypical coming of age novel and it does things which I can’t help but admire it for, even if it lacks in execution in some places. As I read it, there was no doubt in my mind that I was reading a classic example of the fantasy genre.

SCORE: 4.5/5

IN A WORD: SYMBOLIC

 

(Personal Post) On Graduation From a Writing Course.

It’s not something I usually mention on this blog, but up until June 2016 I was enrolled on a writing course. Having attended the graduation ceremony last week, it gave me a lot to think about, specifically on how it has affected my writing. My writing is another thing which I’ve chosen not too talk too much about on this blog, though I have talked about it a few times in relation to my Camp Nanowrimo entry back in July (still editing it so no chance of doing the one for this month).  As a result I think it might be worth mentioning about my writing and how this course has changed it.

I know that there is a lot of stigma attached to writing courses and speaking from experience it can be hard to find one which works for you. When searching for my BA I went through the universities within travelling distance, starting with the ones with a reputation but ultimately found them lacking. In the end I found the one I was looking for in a rather humble University block attached to a college campus (for you Americans, college in the UK typically refers to somewhere  which gears towards practical courses aimed at training for 16-18 year old who have just left Secondary School). This BA course offered what I was looking for, namely variety.

You see, as a writer my interests have always varied beyond prose fiction and have extended to things such as film and comics and have had as much experience writing comics as a kid as a did prose, if not more so. This course offered everything, scriptwriting, prose and comic writing, in addition to a non fiction module which I didn’t have too much interest in but nonetheless suited the interests of some of the people attending the course. As a whole it offered everything I could want as a writer and played a key role on how my writing developed an introduced me (or reintroduced me in the case of comics) to subjects which I would otherwise not have considered viable writing paths.

There was also a bit of crossover between the various modules as well. For example, learning how to write film scripts improved my prose fiction since the simple, concise style bled over to my prose as I spent more time writing in the script format. Prose was not my strongest subject in terms of assessment results and realising I could take what I’ve learned from the other subjects helped me get back on my feet with it when I decided to get write short stories in my spare time. Yet the best part of it all was the feedback and the opportunity for a tutor who knows what they’re talking about to to pick apart my work and in the process point out flaws within my creative process that needed to address. The feedback from peers and tutors alike gave me confidence in my writing and showed me ways of looking at my work that had never occurred to me before. It wasn’t all smooth sailing but I think it changed my writing for the better.

I wouldn’t say it’s turned me into some perfect professional who can instantly write perfect pieces of fiction and I still suffer from a lot of the same problems I did when I started, but what it has taught me is how to deal with them and to recognise them whenever they pop up. The one notable change in my approach is that I now spend longer editing longer pieces, which is in part why my current novel is taking so long to write in addition to the fact that I am still trying to find my voice within the prose format. If anything I would like to say this. Writing courses aren’t all bad, there are good ones out there and if you are looking don’t hesitate to take the plunge. At the end of the day you don’t truly know if it will work out for you until you try.