The Silkworm, J.K. Rowling: Book review

Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm coverJ.K. Rowling is a great fan of the densely plotted, complicated novel that doesn’t seem like a densely plotted, complicated novel. The Harry Potter books are deceptively simple but go analyse Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix and pay attention to the amount of plot turns and exposition and red herrings slipped into each chapter – details vital to making the conclusions work.

Rowling (or Robert Galbraith, if we’re still pretending he wrote these books) brings that same deceptive simplicity to her (or his) Cormoran Strike books. There’s no magic or fantasy here, but there are all the tropes of the classic murder-mystery.

The Silkworm is anchored by a troubled but ultimately good-hearted detective: wounded war veteran-turned-PI Strike, who’s assisted by his faithful secretary Robin. There’s the twisted and mysterious murder: reclusive author Owen Quine is gruesomely murdered after writing a sensational book that spills dirty secrets on pretty much everyone in London’s publishing industry. And then there’s the cast of intriguing suspects, with mysterious backstories and motives to be exposed.

Note that “faithful secretary” is an absurdly reductive description for Robin; it’s like calling Hermione Granger a “faithful friend”. She’s one of the few women who comes off well in this book – others are remarked upon with disdainful judgement that I’m not sure is part of Cormoran’s character or Rowling’s worldview. Either way, it’s clear in this universe that there’s the right kind of woman to be (Robin) and the wrong kind of woman to be (basically every other female character).

Not that it spoils the mystery. What does come close to spoiling it is the conclusion: No spoilers, but basically Strike deduces who Quine’s murderer is about three-quarters of the way through – and the rest of the book is devoted to cunning schemes tracking down evidence to prove the killer’s guilty, with his or her identity artfully hidden from the reader.

It’s frustrating, and it feels like a cheat, a violation of the genre’s rules. The detective in murder-mysteries is allowed to keep his suspicions from the reader – Agatha Christie did this basically all the time with Poirot, which is why he could sometimes seem so insufferable – but the reader needs access to all the information, all the clues, so that there’s a sense we could have solved the crime if only we possessed the detective’s genius and insight. That sense is missing in The Silkworm.

Previously: The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling


The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling: Book review

The Cuckoo's CallingReally I guess that title should be “The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith”, except we all know how that whole attempted pseudonym thing work out, so I’ll just stick with “J.K. Rowling”.

There’s been talk of Rowling penning a crime novel for years, since even before she wrote those little-known books about that magic kid whose name escapes me. It turns out she’s as deft at detectives as she is at wizards and witches: Rowling’s prose is rarely that remarkable, but her stories are always captivating, hard to step away from.

Cuckoo’s Calling starts with the suicide of supermodel Lula Landry, who leaps from the balcony of her London penthouse on a snowy, silent night. The rabid British press feasts on her death for a while, till she’s swept aside into the heap of forgotten celebrity carcasses. That’s when Lula’s adopted brother John approaches private detective Cormoran Strike, convinced Lula was murdered. Strike starts poking around in the case, and – what do you know – finds that the circumstances of Lula’s death are darker and more complicated than they seem.

I don’t know how Rowling does it, but she’s terrific at constructing fictional worlds that are believable and organic. Her mythologies never feel forced. Strike’s London is as alive as Hogwarts, rich with secrets and shadows and intriguing characters – especially Lula, who’s vividly realised even though she never speaks and dies on pretty much the first page, but especially Strike, a wounded war veteran struggling to hold his personal and professional lives together. He’s such a big, striking (no pun intended) character I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been knocking around in Rowling’s head for almost as long as Harry Potter has.

Like all good detective fiction, Rowling throws out scores of seemingly innocent details. If you’ve played the crime game before you know most of them are red herrings, but a tantalising few are clues to the identity of Lula’s killer/s. The conclusion is satisfying and melodramatic and expertly tied up, but it’s still disappointing to come to the end and have the mystery all laid out for you – because it means your time spent mulling over those clues is over.

Previously: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling


The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling: Book review

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling, coverIt’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again to play it safe: The Casual Vacancy is not a book for children. Do not gift this book to a young Harry Potter fan. Not even a charmingly precocious seems-wise-beyond-her-years one. There’s a C-bomb about five pages in. When J.K. Rowling said she intended to write a book for adults, she was not messing around.

Rowling also intended to write a book that isn’t fantasy, and Vacancy‘s story is as muggle as they come: a council election. The residents of Pagford, a stock-standard quaint English town, must elect a new member to their parish council when Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly. Barry had been an advocate for a nearby council estate called The Fields – “council estate” being the polite name for “drug-addled rathole” – and his successor will determine the estate’s future.

The good guys and the bad guys are easy to identify, but they’re not heroes and villains. They’re marked not by their virtues or their flaws but I guess by their regard for humanity: for all their failings, the good guys understand that other people are all people, that everyone has an internal voice and hopes and roots; the bad guys don’t look beyond shallow stereotypes, beyond throwing people in or out of particular cliques, beyond their own problems.

Not everyone rates her prose, but Rowling is brilliant at creating these full, organic worlds. It’s an underrated talent of hers – it’s why the worlds created by her Potter imitators often feel so hollow – and her imagination extends not just to these huge wild ideas but to the small little ones too. The world Rowling crafts in Vacancy is a real one, brimming with detail and too-familiar human pettiness.

It’s also an unexpectedly bleak world. If Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows tricked you into thinking that Rowling can’t resist a sappy ending, think again. It becomes clear pretty early on in Vacancy that not everything will be resolved with a nice bow – it’s just not that kind of book – but it’s a shock how brutal (and, to be honest, melodramatic) the final chapters are. Rowling, though a clear advocate for social equality and fairness, is ultimately a realistic, or a cynic: the cruel, hard-hearted currents of human nature are too powerful to be dammed. Society’s worst problems can’t be fixed. It fits that Barry Fairbrother, maybe the only effortlessly moral and good man in Pagford, dies in the first couple of pages. It’s not Voldemort-style evil that’s undoing the world. It’s just indifference to other people.


Book review: The Magician King, Lev Grossman

The Magician King

Remember that feeling after you finished school or university or college or whatever but before you got moved out into the Real Adult World? That feeling of being surrounded by an overwhelming number of opportunities, of being paralysed by the dread of choosing the wrong one, of not really being sure what was going to happen next, of wondering if this is really what life is meant to be like for the rest of forever, of not wanting to move forward but not forward but not wanting to stay? The Magician King is about that feeling. And magic.

(Some spoilers ahead for the prequel, The Magicians.)

Quentin Coldwater is a king of Fillory, the magical land from a series of books he adored as a child, which he discovered was real in the previous instalment. He’s growing fat and comfortable.

But Quentin being Quentin, he’s still unhappy. He wants more, and he gets it when he ventures out on a seemingly straightforward tax-collecting mission in Fillory’s farthest-flung tropical corners: circumstance tosses him and his co-royal Julia – his childhood friend who, you’ll remember, failed the entrance exam to magic academy Brakebills in The Magicians – back into the real world, where they stumble into a quest to save Fillory and magic itself.

The synopsis reads like standard magical-fantasy-land stuff, but Lev Grossman is awesome at blowing up your expectations of those kinds of stories. In Magicians he turned “boy finds out he’s magical, is educated in the ways of magic” tropes on their head. In Magician King he does the same for “boy finds out he must save the world”.

These books also address the realities of fantasy, as dumb as that sounds. If your teenage fantasies came true as an adult, you’d probably be pretty disappointed, as Quentin is. And, like Quentin, you’d soften the blow with layers of hip, disaffected cynicism and knowing pop-culture references. (You wouldn’t see Hermione using as iPhone, as King‘s Australian witch Poppy does)

And this attitude is important because, you know what, fantasy – if taken literally – is kind of lame. (I say that as a fantasy aficionado, FYI.) Grossman recognises this, which stops his work from falling into the twee trap of the classics he’s working with.

Like The Magicians, The Magician King meanders all over the place: Quentin visits Venice and talks to a dragon, then later descends into the underworld. He meets a sloth called Abigail along the way. It’s dreamlike, patched together, and it suits the story wonderfully.

Unlike its predecessor, King is not just about Quentin. Julia’s desperately sad, compelling backstory unfolds in tandem with the A-plot: these flashbacks to her magical education tell a dark, grimly satisfying tale with a devastating kick-in-the-balls climax. Julia’s magic is old and dangerous, nothing like Harry Potter or even grown-up stuff like True Blood: magic is barely under human control, and there are real consequences to using it. It’s fascinating.

I guess with sequels there’s always the question: is The Magician King better than The Magicians? But I don’t think the question even matters here. One is foundation, the other is build. Magicians was startlingly fresh, but Magician King enriches what we already know.

Grossman has confirmed there’s a third book coming (yay!) – he’s created too rich a universe not to explore further, and the end of King leaves Quentin’s story wide open. Like the magic in his books, the potential of Grossman’s fantasy world is near-limitless.

Previously: Book review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman


Book review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman

The Magicians

The Magicians is sinister and dangerous and adult, high-stakes and smart and sharp, a fantasy novel about fantasy novels and for those of us who read them, and an exploration what happens when your wildest childhood fantasies are realised in adulthood. (Spoiler alert: it’s never as good as you hoped.) It’s a remarkable book.

Quentin Coldwater is a Brooklyn teenager who grew up obsessed with Fillory and Further – a Narnia-ish series of books written in the ’30s, about a family of English children who escape World War I by nipping out to a parallel world populated by evil witch villains and friendly animal companions. Now preparing for college, Quentin is unenthusiastic about his future despite being a young genius who could do anything he wants.

What Quentin really wants – what a lot of us want, actually – is for the world to be a bigger, more fantastic place than it is. Unlike us readers, though, he’s not constrained by the limitations of reality: his wish comes true when he’s invited to take the entrance examination at Brakebills, an elite college of magic in upstate New York. Unfortunately he’s not accepted, and that’s where the novel ends. Just kidding! He gets in.

Quentin’s education at Brakebills is incredible – its highlight comes when Quentin and his whole class are transfigured into geese and fly all the way to Antarctica for one freezing, rigorous semester. Nevertheless, he’s unsatisfied – the magic world is ultimately as mundane and difficult and disappointing as the real world. The only place he might still discover happiness is in Fillory, which may not be as fictional as he thought. Unfortunately he never gets to Fillory, and the that’s where the novel ends. Just kidding! He finds it.

If you ever dreamed of visiting a fantasy land from a much-loved book, you must must must read The Magicians. It explicitly references a tonne of fantasy novels, especially the Harry Potter series – the simplest way to describe it is “Harry Potter for adults”, or maybe “The Secret History set at Hogwarts”. The magic is mixed in with sex and alcohol and maddening social politics, and a dark streak of danger: in Harry Potter you always kind of knew Harry and Ron and Hermione were shielded from death, but there’s no similar sense here. It’s telling there’s no Dumbledore or Aslan or Gandalf stand-in – Quentin’s teachers are an unsure and wary of magic’s power as he is.

The pace of The Magicians is bloated and messy but its episodic nature suits Grossman’s story (it’s both easy and impossible to see how it might be adapted into a TV series). It’s never obvious where Quentin’s adventures will take him, though in hindsight it all seems inevitable. But it’s often hard to get a fix on the characters – oftentimes Grossman will describe some supporting character as being a certain way, and it’s the first time you got that sense from the character.

I dreamed about this book. The moment I finished it I picked up the recently released sequel, The Magician King. It’s dumb and hackneyed to review a book about magic and call it “enchanting”, but The Magicians really is enchanting.


Harry Potter advocates the death penalty

Bellatrix Lestrange

Helena Bonham Carter does "Psycho Bitch" so well

Some criminals are so bad that the only punishment for them is death. At least, this is the view seemingly endorsed by the Harry Potter universe – which is otherwise pretty liberal in its worldview.

Bellatrix Lestrange is locked up in Azkaban, the most fearsome of all wizard prisons, for her role in torturing Neville Longbottom’s parents Frank and Alice (presumably she committed a bunch of other crimes during Voldemort’s first reign of terror, too). Several years later, turncoat Dementors break Bellatrix out of Azkaban; when she escapes, she’s still loyal to Voldemort, and still determined to bring down the wizard/Muggle status quo.

So basically, her time in prison hasn’t rehabilited her even a bit. It hasn’t deterred her from committing future crimes. Nor has it ultimately deprived her of anything: she comes out of Azkaban and instantly resumes her magical power and position at Voldemort’s right hand. Bellatrix demonstrates the failure of incarceration as a means of punishment. The only way for society to deal with criminals of this nature, then, is to execute them, and Molly Weasley comes Bellatrix’s executioner during the Battle of Hogwarts.

And, of course, there’s Voldemort himself. Through the series Harry knows that at some point he’ll have to defeat Voldemort – and it’s made clear, first implicitly and later explicitly, that “defeat” actually means “kill”. It’s not like Voldemort can be locked up in a tower for the rest of his life, Grindelwald-style (though Deathly Hallows hints that Grindelwald eventually felt remorse for his crimes, suggesting rehabilitation does work in some circumstances). The only punishment suitable for the Dark Lord is death, and while Harry technically doesn’t kill Voldemort, Voldemort does end up dead.


Book review: Clockwork Angel, Cassandra Clare

I’ve been a reader of Cassandra Clare for a while: in the early ’00s I enjoyed her Harry Potter Draco trilogy (pretty much the only fanfic I’ve ever read, I swear!), I lapped up the Very Secret Diaries like everyone else on the internet, and last year I consumed her The Mortal Instruments trilogy in about a week.

Thus I am qualified to say that Clockwork Angel, the first instalment in The Infernal Devices trilogy, is her best work yet.

So Devices is basically a prequel to Instruments (it’s not necessary to have read Instruments to get Devices, though I’d recommend it), set in a late-19th century London infested with demons and “Downworlders” – Clare’s term for vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beasties. Fortunately regular humans, or “mundanes”, are protected by the Shadowhunters: an elite band of warriors descended from angels (more or less).

Tessa Gray comes to this world from New York City, searching for her missing brother Nate, and soon encounters two teenage Shadowhunters and best friends: the beautiful, arrogant Will (who’s basically the same character as Jace from Mortal Instruments, at least at this stage in the trilogy), and the sensitive, sickly Jem ((for the record: Team Jem! Will is the Bad Boy, and I’m not into the Bad Boy.)) . Naturally a love triangle begins to blossom, as Tessa is pulled into a dangerous mystery building in the Shadowhunter world.

The individual elements of Clare’s works are rarely that original, and that goes for Clockwork Angel – there’s the usual steampunk tropes, familiar demon-hunting tropes, the character-types you’ll find in most YA novels, all wrapped in customary snark – but that isn’t an insult. Clare has a knack for combining stuff we’ve seen into an enjoyable, compelling story.

Clare’s writing adopts a Victorian style which suits her well, but be warned that Angel is very heavily geared towards setting up the next two parts, Clockwork Prince and Clockwork Princess – don’t pick it up yet if you’re the type of reader who interprets “tantalysing clues” as “frustrating loose-ends”.

Fortunately I am not that type of reader. Clockwork Angel is entertaining, dare I say ripping stuff, crammed with invitingly detailed world-building – I even read it during my lunchbreak at work, and let me tell you, I don’t do that for just any book.


Likeable characters who kind of aren’t, actually

I’m sure there’s got to be plenty of characters who fit into this category: on first reading/viewing, they seem like bang-up guys (or ladies), but a few re-reads/views later you start to realise that they actually kind of aren’t. Three examples off the top of my head…

Ariel, The Little Mermaid. After bragging to Flounder about all the cool shit she has stashed in her cave, Ariel laments “But who cares? No big deal. I want more.” Jeez, Ariel – you’re already a beautiful mermaid princess whose father dotes on her. What more could you possibly want, you spoiled bitch? (This also kind of applies to Simba, though at least he’s meant to sound bratty when he sings ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’.)

Luna Lovegood, Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the intrepid trio visits the home of their schoolchum Luna, who up till this point has seemed like a spacey but innocent weirdo. But when they stumble into her bedroom, they discover “ceiling portraits of [Harry], Luna, Ron, Hermione, Neville and Ginny entwined with the word ‘Friends'”. Cue creepy stalker music. (This is nothing against Evanna Lynch, who is brill.)

The parents, The Parent Trap. So here’s the deal. Nick and Elizabeth (Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson, RIP) hook up, have identical twin daughters, then endure a break-up so painful they can never see each other again. Each returns to their respective country – America and England – each taking a daughter with them. And they both agree never to let the twins see each other, nor tell them about the other’s existence. That is horrible. And we’re meant to root for these abusive chumps to get back together?! No wonder Lindsay Lohan is so fucked-up. (For the record: I love The Parent Trap. But, wow, the titular parents are jerks.)


Book review: Blaze of Glory, Michael Pryor

Blaze of GloryWhen I was a kid I loved pretty much everything Enid Blyton wrote, with a couple of exceptions. First among these was Noddy (that little prat). Second was Fatty, the so-called “hero” of the Five Find-Outers series. Fatty was a rich, boastful boor (who was obsessed with “slimming”, though he never seemed to lose any weight), and his adventures left me with a long-running distaste for tales of the English upper-class.

The Laws of Magic novels, of which Blaze of Glory is part one, are about Aubrey Fitzwilliam – a very rich, very clever, very absurdly named English toff who attends a posh boarding school and is the son of a prominent politician. By rights I should hate him. But I don’t, and I think it’s because Michael Pryor is playing with the conventions of a genre I once loathed.

And doing an awfully good job of it. For example: Aubrey’s best chum George constantly calls him “old man”. And at one stage he dresses himself up as a street urchin called Tommy Sparks. Tommy Sparks! Brilliant.

Superficially, Laws of Magic is a lot like Harry Potter: both are about slight, dark-haired, magically gifted teenagers with a knack for landing themselves in the thick of mysterious events. But Blaze of Glory is rife with a political intrigue that’s absent from the Potter novels (from the early ones, at least): it’s set in an alternate universe in the early 20th century, as “Albion” is on the verge of war with “Holmland” (stand-ins for England and Germany, respectively).

Aubrey and George are invited to a shooting weekend at the Crown Prince’s palatial country estate, joined by politicians, aristocrats and foreign diplomats. Aubrey foils an attempt on the Prince’s life when he discovers a golem sent on an assassination mission – but who sent the golem, and why? …