Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

This isn’t strictly speaking a spoiler review since I don’t actually say what happens in detail, but I do say what doesn’t happen which is potentially spoiler-y. With that in mind, if you haven’t read The Last Kingdom yet and would like your experience to be completely influence free then maybe save this review for later. It’s always better to safe rather than sorry, folks.

2004 • 355 pages (eBook) • Harper Collins

Ninth century England. Danish warriors ruthlessly storm the English coast, killing and plundering everything in their wake, invading each Kingdom in England and taking it for themselves. All except one: Wessex still stands and it is the fate of this Kingdom that will determine the course of history. Caught in the midst of the invasion is Uhtred, son of an Anglo-Saxon Lord who is captured by the Danes. Living freely as an Englishman among his adoptive Danish family, Uhtred’s loyalties are constantly tested as England is plunged in to war.

I finished The Last Kingdom in the early hours a little over a day ago and since then I’ve been trying to weigh up how I feel about it. This is historical fiction at its grittiest: there’s action and blood and Cornwell doesn’t go sparingly on the detail. All of this is of course very good, it’s exactly what I want from a historical novel to help me escape. At 355 pages it’s not exactly a beast of a book, but a hell of a lot happens and it’s amazing how Cornwell fits so much in to the story without stretching out the page count considerably. The pacing and the timing are handled really well and you can see Uhtred’s character grow and develop as the plot goes along.

The narrative is told in first person from Uhtred’s perspective and I thought Uhtred was actually a well-rounded protagonist. He felt real and flawed; he wasn’t glossed over or crafted in to the perfect hero. Instead he helped accentuate the complexities of human nature in the decisions he must make. In that sense, the book is awesome. Some of the other characters felt a little flat – Mildrith comes in much later in the story and although you understand Uhtred’s feelings toward her, she herself felt underdeveloped. I liked her because Uhtred liked her, and she never really came in to a character of her own. Maybe in the next book we’ll see a bit more of her. Brida was fun, but her part also felt a bit show-and-tell. Alfred however, was great. I really felt the complexity of his character and it will be interesting to see how his story for greatness unfolds throughout the rest of the series.

The bone I have to pick with this book lies not with the premise of the story, but with the way it’s executed. Uhtred’s narration is told retrospectively, in that it is an older, wiser Uhtred who is telling the reader his story. Cornwell’s decision to tell the story in this method simply lets us know that he knows exactly what’s going to happen to his main character before it actually occurs. Which is fine, it’s good for an author to know where his story his going, but this meant that I was constantly aware that no matter what bloodshed, no matter how close Uhtred comes to death, I ultimately knew that he would live to tell the tale.

You may be thinking, but hey it’s a given that the main protagonist will live, especially if it’s written in the first person. Yes, this is usually true and there are plenty of other books out there where the protagonist survives, but this only served to remind me that Uhtred will manage to endure whatever Cornwell throws at him and that kind of watered down the tension for me. There were times when Uhtred would meet somebody for the first time, and go on to say something like, “and I still liked them many years later” or “that was the first time I met such-a-body, and I didn’t know what it meant then”. Occasionally this made me think “Great! This person is going to be important later on, I wonder what happens…” but mostly it just once again reminded me that someone was going to survive –at least for a bit longer – and come out of whatever shit-fest was about to go down.

I just wanted to get lost in the story a little more, for the narrative to give me a chance to kind of forget that Uhtred will survive – it would have made the dangers he faced a little more dangerous. The story itself is great, there’s a lot of historical detail which is awesome and lots of battles and action which is equally great so points to Cornwell for that. It didn’t ‘wow’ me as much as I had hoped though.

Overall rating: 3 stars


Monday, 21 March 2016

Review: Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen

Date Finished: 21/3/2016
2011  460 pages  Rating ««

Over the past few months I’ve been reading a lot of novels set in seventeenth century France. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres anyway, but the reign of Louis XIV is my new jam and currently I’m always on the lookout for books set in this period of history. So naturally when I discovered Karleen Koen’s Before Versailles, I thought I was in for a real treat. The plot sounded amazing: a young Louis XIV coming to the height of his power, corrupt politicians, scandalous romances, and a subplot concerning the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask. What’s not to love, right?

Sadly, the premise of the story is about as exciting as it gets. Everything about this book sets it up to be an exciting, un-put-down-able read, yet I found myself being able to set this aside for days at a time and feel no urge at all to pick it back up. My problem here lies with the writing style: plain and simple, it bored me. It didn’t provide the story with any bulk, like the words were just floating on the pages – the style of writing just failed to immerse me in the story. I was never left thirsting for more, desperate to get to the next chapter. It all felt just very, meh.

I’m no stranger to novels from multiple character viewpoints. In fact when done well, I’m a big fan. I think it adds a lot of depth and gives the story a wider scope, but in this novel it just didn’t work and the annoying thing is, I really wanted it to. The character perspectives seemed to flit about randomly, some of which failed to give anything to the plot. Athenais de Montespan: great historical figure, but completely irrelevant in this book. Her sections could have been chopped and it wouldn’t have mattered. Besides, Before Versailles covers a condensed period during the summer of 1661, concentrating on Louis XIV's strained relationship with Nicolas Fouquet and his soon to be blossoming romance with Louise de la Valliere. Athenais isn’t really doing anything at this point other than moon about, which is as interesting as it sounds.

This could have been so much more. There is some really great potential for amazing characters and shocking twists but it all falls flat. Even the side plot mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask, one the most famous enigmas in history, felt predictable and disappointing. There was no shocking climax, no emotional connection to any of the characters, and it’s such a shame because I hoped this was going to be so much better.

I won’t deny that Koen clearly did well with her research. The French court was certainly came across as decadent and lavish, and I’m sure I would have been able to appreciate it more if it wasn’t for the annoying digressions constantly interrupting the flow of the narrative:

“’And our little French dauphin’” – the first son of the king was called the dauphin because three hundred years earlier a king of France has purchased huge territories that carried a hereditary title, taken from the dolphin on the coat of arms.”

I mean, come on. It isn’t even useful information; it’s just unnecessary knowledge which acts as nothing more than a distancing mechanism for the reader. This book promised scandal, mystery, passion, and I wasn’t expecting The Tudors or anything but man, this fell short. I’ve another of Koen’s novels in the pipeline so perhaps I’ll have better luck with Dark Angels when I get around to reading it.

Update: I did not have better luck with Dark Angels. I DNF'd it after about 70 pages. Koen isn't for me. 

Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

Date Finished: 19/3/2016
2016  368 pages  Rating ««««

My proof copy of The Girls was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review originally appeared on their website.

California. Summer 1969. Fourteen year old Evie Boyd is a thoughtful yet bored teenager from a broken home. The attention she craves is nowhere to be found in the form of her neglectful, serial dating mother, or even in the friendship of her fickle best friend Connie. Abandoned by those around her, Evie’s path collides with Suzanne – a mysterious older girl who introduces Evie to a strange yet thrilling new life, offering her the intimate relationship her life back home lacks.

The Girls is a thrilling and beautifully written début novel with the film rights already in the works. The prose is simply engrossing and it is written in an eloquent style that was nothing short of splendid to read. It’s the kind of writing that makes you stop reading so you can mark the pages, as though you’re reminding yourself that yes, this how you write.

Despite having left my teen years behind, I can strongly remember what it felt like to be Evie’s age – to be fourteen and tortured by your own inner turmoil, the making and breaking of friendships, trying to discover your identity and who you want to be. Emma Cline’s craftsmanship perfectly captures the teenage mind as Evie learns to make sense of the world around her, and this strange new life she suddenly finds herself in.

While Evie is an interesting and relatable protagonist, the subject matter of the story is dark and perhaps appears scarier since it is told through the eyes of a young girl, whose naïve teenage mind still blinds her to the dangers in society. The story is loosely based on the Manson Murders which took place in California around this time and since it is told in a non-linear narrative, you are fed subtle hints of what will happen and how events unfold.The narrative is dreamlike; everything appears hazy which did make the story feel fragmented in parts, but I believe that’s how it’s meant to be read. The Girls isn’t the kind of novel where you try to work out how it will end; you already have a clear understanding of where things are going and the thrill comes from simply how it is written, thanks to Cline’s delicate use of language.

Despite being able to appreciate this novel as a stunningly written piece of work, I didn’t completely love it. I can’t quite pin down why, but the subject matter of the story is not a light one and the explicit scenes concerning sex and drugs did occasionally feel a little heavy. The writing was a pleasure to read even if the context was dark which made the reading experience interesting to say the least. At times it seemed as though not very much was going - you follow Evie as her friendship with Suzanne develops and the events in her new life begin to unfold. It’s slow but well-paced, and clever in its build-up of tension. Without revealing too much, the story brilliantly captures the power of human relationships, which is stunningly executed and while at times shocking, I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it.
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