Tales from Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin 2001)

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This is going to be a difficult book to review, in part because this is the first time I’ve tried to review a collection of short stories. Some are novella length while others are short stories. Of the stories in the collection there are five in total. The first novella length story, The Finder follows the story of how the school of magic is established on Roke Island. Darkrose and Diamond revolves around the romance of a young couple, the daughter of a witch and the son of a rich merchant. The Bones of the Earth follows Ogion the Silent as he deals with an earthquake. On the High Marsh focuses on a healer arrives in a remote village where there is a livestock epidemic. Lastly is the second novella length story Dragonfly, which acts a postscript of sorts to Tehanu and follows the girl Dragonfly as she seeks to become a wizard despite the wizarding schools only taking male students and thus follows her attempts to shatter the gender barriers prevalent within the school in the process.

The Finder was normal enough, a simple story detailing how events lead to the creation of the school on Roke Island. Given the institution’s role in A Wizard of Earthsea I found it interesting to see how the school originally developed. The use of gender roles and establishing that women played a key role in the school’s founding was a clever way of redressing the gender imbalance from the previous Earthsea novels, where women could only ever be witches as opposed to mages. The fact that these women were later excluded from the school made me feel sorry for him and I liked the novella in part because of how it addressed the issues present within the previous novels in the Earthsea series and challenging notions which were previously not discussed.

Darkrose and Diamond was interesting, in part because of the way it handled the romance between the two titular characters. However I feel like it could have been improved if it followed the female, Darkrose as opposed to Diamond since she was the more interesting character, being an independent female who struggles with being the daughter of a witch, again continuing a trend of independent female characters. The theme of strong independent female characters pops up again in The Bones of the Earth, where Ogion’s mentor learned his magic from a female mage. The

On the High Marsh was somewhat of an odd sheep and for some reason I didn’t follow it in quite the same way as the others, in part because I did not see any connections to the rest of the series and partially because somehow I found the plot somehow unremarkable. Consequently it wasn’t always the easiest story to follow and I must confess I sort of skimmed through it. The only connection to the series is when Ged appears towards the end of the story, revealing that the book was set during his time as Archmage. Truth be told, it just seemed like a weak story.

Another intriguing story was Dragonfly, which acts as a bridge between Tehanu and the next Earthsea novel, The Other Wind. It follows a girl, the titular Dragonfly. The interesting aspect about this is that once again it deals with the idea of independence and the challenging of gender roles, this time more explicitly since the main character seeks to become a mage despite being a girl and seeking to study at a school which only admits male students. The return to the school on Roke was quite welcome and showing the internal corruption amongst the mages was interesting after losing Ged as Archmage and the question is left as to who will become Archmage next.

Overall the theme of independence and feminism features strongly in a lot of the stories in the book, more so than in the previous Earthsea novels. A lot the stories challenge the idea that the way things are in the Earthsea novels are how they should be, rather she makes the reader stop and think about whether this whimsical world of hers as as perfect as she’s made it out to be. In some ways I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of these stories, not as much at the Earthsea novels themselves but still a great read.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: INDEPENDENT

Dust of Dreams (Steven Erikson 2009)

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First off I should apologise for not updating last week. I was busy and in my rush in the rush to get other things done I forgot about the blog entirely. Thus I give my apologies and without further ado it is time to begin the review. Dust of Dreams is the ninth novel in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series and is also the second to last. Both it and the sequel The Crippled God form the last act of this rather draggy series. The book follows a number of factions but revolves around the exiled Malazan Army, lead by Adjunct Tavore as they make their preparations within Letheras to begin their march into the eastern wastelands to confront an unknown enemy. They stand ready to make a last heroic stand as dark forces threaten to swallow the world whole. The destinies of the various characters are set to become more complicated as they prepare to make one last heroic stand, but with nobody around to witness it.

Interestingly enough the novel begins in Letheras and that is where the finale seems to be set up, since that is where the exiled Malazan Army have taken residence. There we gain insight into the mechanics of the new regime, of which recurring character Tehol has been crowned King. Tehol was a disappointingly minor character in the novel, at least in my opinion, since he never engaged in much action himself and preferred to act through his brother Brys Beddict. The politics surrounding Letheras and the people left within it start to come to a head as things start to heat up.

Most interesting is how factions I haven’t previously paid much attention to, such as the K’Chain Che’Malle, seemed to factor more into this book than they had previously. To some extent this meant the book got a bit complex to me. It seemed to bring a lot of plotlines together but somehow I struggled to understand a lot of this book because it seemed to bring to a conclusion the side plots from the previous novels, which I have long since forgotten about. With a series as big as Malazan it is easy to forget things and this worked against my enjoyment of the book somewhat.

Somehow this book seemed to drag on longer than the others, in part because the book as a whole was meant to be a prelude to the next book as opposed to a novel on its own. This was something which I would have preferred not to happen since the novels are so large and complicated already, it was worse having to read two of these novels before I finally understand what’s going on. Of course by the time I’ve gotten to the end the myraid of plots and subplots mean that the book is a blur of complicated stuff which I don’t understand. This is something I’ve come to expect with the series as a whole but somehow it felt worse in Dust of Dreams.

Overall there isn’t too much to say about Dust of Dreams, it’s mostly a book of set-ups in preparation for the next novel. Not a whole lot remarkable happened in it, although my cynicism regarding this series may be starting to cloud my judgement at this stage. It was no worse or better than any of the other Malazan Book of the Fallen books. I’ll admit that a lot of it just sort of blurred together into this mess of stuff which I understood better at the beginning than I did at the end. Knowing how this goes I don’t know what the last book will have in store for me but I hope that it gives me some sense of closure from all this at least.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: DULL

Give a Boy a Gun (Todd Strasser 2000)

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Recently I picked up a strange and unique novel known as Give a Boy a Gun. I should warn you that this book is about two boys who go on a school shooting, therefore I will be talking about what may be an uncomfortable topic for some. Hence you have been warned if this is not something you want to be reading about. As a British man, my view of school shootings will likely be different to that of the average American, in part because the issue is not nearly as prominent in the UK. As a result my view of the issue may at times come across as quite alien. In some ways the gun crime in America has always intrigued me, and I must confess that I have quite the morbid obsession with school shootings, particularly the famous ones such as Columbine from which this novel seems to draw its inspiration. As a consequence the book was an interesting read.

Give a Boy a Gun has a unique style of narrative in that it tells its story in the form of interviews, compiled by Denise Shipley, the stepsister of Gary Searle, one of the shooters. The story is thus told through multiple alternate point of views which change with each paragraph giving the story and almost omniscient narrative with the way it frequently flies between each narrator. Between these are things such as suicide notes written by the perpetrators and online conversations, which often serve to add variety to the narrative. This was an intriguing thing for me, particularly the addition of online conversations since this something that is often missing in a lot of the so called “scrapbook” or epistolary novels which appear from time to time. Additions such as this make the novel feel more modern as a result, though I admit having to memorise the usernames of each of the main cast members was annoying at times. I would have maybe preferred it if they put the real names in brackets or something.

The story itself is simple. Despite never seeing things from their perspective, the story revolves around shooters, Gary Searle and Brendan Lawlor and an exploration of their gradual descent into misanthropy. The story follows the course of their time in high school and uses the interviews to give an insight into why Gary and Brendan did what they did. The novel cumulates in an account of the incident itself, which takes place at a dance during their Tenth Grade. Amongst the numerous people giving accounts of the story are a mutual friend of Gary and Brendan, Ryan Clancy and Gary’s girlfriend, Allison Findley. The latter was an interesting addition because in one way it showed that even if he wasn’t completely ‘lonely’, the bullying and teasing him still isolated Gary to the point where he wanted to go ahead with the shooting despite being in a relationship with Allison. I had mixed feeling about her role in the end however, since her role in stopping the shooting seemed somewhat contrived and in hinsight I couldn’t help but wonder if she was only there to give Gary a crisis of conscience at the last second.

To me I can’t decide of that crisis of conscience at the end was a good thing or not. In the end it results in Gary shooting himself, an event which essentially puts an end to the shooting due to the resulting shock. On the one hand it showed that he wasn’t completely far gone, but sometimes I wonder if the story would have been better if he rejected that last opportunity of redemption. It also created this power dynamic where Brendan was the “stronger” of the two. This idea of one shooter being an instigator is a trend I’ve seen in fiction relating to school shootings to the point where I actually think it’s a bit cliché in a strange sort of way. Up until that point I was hoping that it would reach some conclusion that neither would be ‘more guilty’ than the other, and I was somewhat disappointed that the story did not go in that direction.

Expectations aside, the novel was a brilliant read and one I would wholly recommend to anyone who is interested in the topic of school shootings. It reflects a lot of reality, though at times I feel like it rehashed a lot of the popular conceptions of the Columbine Massacre rather than try to construct original personalities and motivations for the shooters. However it is still a great novel. It’s a little bit on the short side but throughout the entire thing I was completely gripped. I’ve been waiting for a novel like this for some time and I’m grateful for its attempt at innovation. One of the best pieces of fiction on school shootings I’ve read so far.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: REAL