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charlie, computer cat

November 2017

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charlie, computer cat

Reviews

Thanks to the forbearance of the RSC in the matter of my absent minded treatment of my tickets (still not turned up!) we went to see Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon (soon to be renamed Shakespeareville) last week. I quite liked Stratford, although if it had been trying a little less hard I think it might have been nicer. Still, we had a lovely walk in a Shakespeare garden which was full of statues of various levels of abstractness each representing a play so we amused ourselves by trying to guess the play as we approached each one before checking the answer on the plinth. I think I won by 2 plays but even I only got about half of them (although that's probably due to me not knowing the other texts well enough - I got all the ones I know a lot about).

The actual performance took me aback by how good it was. I was a bit downcast by the start - the guy playing Horatio had a bit of a tendancy to be shouty/proclaimy and the whole first act came off a little melodramatic. To be fair though, the first act is crazy, and it's very difficult not to make it seem melodramatic. Once that was out of the way and we settle down to Polonius and his leave taking, and Hamlet and his antics in the court, the production really sucked me in. I absolutely loved the quick fire banter and the line reading made the script transition from feeling like verse to feeling like conversation, which is something I always look for in a good Shakespeare production. I thought Tennant's reading of the soliloquies was really good, particularly "Alas, poor Yorick" and of course Stewart was as amazing as usual. I don't really have anything new or unusual to say about it, but I just want to record how much I liked it for my own memories.

The next day we had a few hours to kill before we had to be in Cambridge and I had originally thought we would go somewhere or browse around Stratford, but actually what I ended up doing was sitting in the hotel garden and blitzing the second half of The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan's foray into fantasy.

I was initially put off this book rather by the combination of the publishers blurb (I've borrowed either coalescent or squigglyruth's preview copy) which has lots of self important stuff about how unusual this grittily realistic approach to fantasy is and how amazing RM is, presumably designed to sell it to book shops, and the fact that it is, IMO very slow starting. I spent about the first third of the book vaguely thinking "OK, very interesting, now when is this actually going to kick off?". The pay off is that if you keep pushing until it does it suddenly pulls you in with a vengeance and becomes extremely hard to put down.

I want to make it clear that I really did like this book very much because it falls into that category of books which are nearly absolutely amazing and because of that, I become hyper aware of all the things which are keeping it from there and tend to focus on those when I'm asked about it which can tend to leave the impression that I hated it. Not true. I liked it very much and these are, I hope, the criticisms of a friend.

So, firstly. Pacing. I very nearly decided to give up before I got to the good bit because you've got three character strands, one of which features a character I didn't warm to at all (Egar - he becomes much better when he joins up with the others but the early stuff pissed me off) and no indication of how they are going to be relevant to each other. They clearly have a past together but they are now wandering around doing their own thing and nursing their war wounds. It doesn't really kick off until Archeth gets back from her fact finding mission and reports back on what happened at the port and then Ringil heads into Etterkal and meets the dwenda. I think that first third is supposed to be world building - giving you time to get your bearings in this society but I found that because it wasn't feeling engaged, or moving in any particular direction I didn't retain a lot of that and had to go back and look it up later on, which was irritating. By the time I'd started to really enjoy the characters and root for them and got right into the action we'd reached the end of the book already.

Secondly, the sex. Sadly, Morgan is just not very good at writing explicit stuff. The Ringil/Seethlaw is not too bad, but it's mostly interesting for the way the dreamlike aspects of it are partly as a result of the sex and partly being in the Dwenda's world. The problem is that it doesn't feel sexy which I think it does need to. All the Egar stuff feels tacked on and just there for shock value - look kids, it's a gritty realistic fantasy world where barbarians fuck a lot! Also the bit with Poltar, which I thought was completely gratuitous. The homophobia stuff was something that I think would have been better if it hadn't been hammered home with a big honking hammer at every opportunity. It ends up feeling that Ringil particularly is entirely defined by his sexuality which is one of the things that means it took a while for him to warm to him. We don't really get a feel for his personality until a bit later. Basically if you're going to write sex into your book, it needs to make sense either for character or plot development and it needs to demonstrate that not just in the fact of it but in the style of it. You gotta evoke the right feeling The R/S fits the first point but only partially the second, the rest of it is superfluous.

While we're talking about technical points, also, point of view. For most of the book, we are restricted to a single point of view per chapter. Mainly we flip between Egar, Ringil and Archeth, with one chapter from Poltar's POV so that we can get the information he's given about Egar being set up. In my opinion, with a more work on Egar's sections (and boy those needed a more work) that chapter could have been disposed of and frankly it would have been the better if it had been, but that's beside the point. The point is, we're mid way through chapter 29, with 50 pages of book to go. Egar and Ringil finally meet up, there's a brawl started with the Dwenda and the narrative cuts from Ringil's point of view to Egar's in the middle of the fight! Now true, we haven't had any of our main POV characters share a chapter before so it could be argued that it's not been established how this will be handled and when we get all three of them together there will be fairly frequent POV shifts but they'll at least be in different paragraphs. This was such a wrench that I completely lost the thread of the narrative and had to go back and read the preceding paragraphs again before I realised that's what had happened and I was completely thrown out of the story at what should have been a particularly dramatic moment leading up to the final confrontation.

Finally, I found the whole Dweller aspect of the thing was not adequately explained. As I said above, it's possible that I just wasn't paying sufficient attention for some of the explaination, but I ended up with very little idea what the hell when it came to the Dwellers and whoever it was moving Egar around. I have no idea how they linked to the Dwenda (whose plot I did like very much) or the Kiriath or the snake people and they ended up just feeling like a deus ex machina to get Egar into the right place to help Ringil escape from Seethlaw. There's letting the details of your world unfold via your narrative and there's just not bothering to fill them in at all and I thought this was too much of the latter. What where their motivations? Who were they and how did they fit into the history? Who knows? In the end it felt like it would have been better to take them out all together and re-write Egar's section to have his wanderlust combined with the challenge for the tribe from his brothers push him into going questing again and pull him towards the Marshes that way without all the mysticism.

So yeah. Could have been great. But still was damn good.
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See, I'm still in the first third, and I'm already hooked. I thought the first chapter of each character strand was enough to grab me, as all the characters were drawn in an interesting way wanting me to keep reading. If anything, Archeth is the one I'm least interested in at the moment - Egar's first couple of chapters were great, and I almost don't want him to leave the mountains and meet the other characters, although I know he obviously will.
This review probably constitutes spoilers if you've only got a bit of the way through! I think I found the aimlessness of the first third frustrating. When you're using that split narrative style, I prefer if we can have some idea of the threads which are going to draw together even though the characters don't.

Perhaps Egar is a matter of personal taste - I never really warmed to him at all, although I found him much more sympathetic as a comradely veteran than he was as a self pitying tribe leader.
Well, in order: broadly agree about the pacing, disagree about the sex, disagree strongly about the POV (I thought mixing it up was a very effective way of conveying the confusion of that battle), and while the Dwellers clearly aren't meant to be entirely intended (at least in this book), it seemed fairly clear to me that they were extra-terrestrials of some description.

Off the back of reading TSR, I've been reading various other heroic fantasies; interesting to see what Morgan took from Elric and The Broken Sword, and equally what he didn't take.
Disagree about my requirements for sex in narrative or disagree that Morgan achieves those?

Is this intended to be part of a series? Because the relative lack of sense of the Dwellers can be a strength if it's going to be explored in later books but I didn't see any hint in the blurb that there was going to be a follow up.

If the POV thing hadn't thrown me so completely out of immersion in the narrative, I would have been more sympathetic to it as a technique but for me the strong drawing in of the second half of the narrative was one of it's major strengths and this worked against it.
Disagree about my requirements for sex in narrative or disagree that Morgan achieves those?

The second. Without wishing to get into TMI, I did find the sex scenes sexy, and I didn't feel Ringil's sexuality dominated his characterisation (though clearly a lot is made of it). I think I might agree with you about some of Egar's sex scenes being gratuitous, actually, though of course most reviews claim it's the Ringil stuff that goes to far (e.g. this, which I don't think much of as a review).

Is this intended to be part of a series?

The origin story is something like, Richard Morgan tells editor he's been working on some fantasy material, editor says, "great! How many books are we talking?", Morgan says, "one", editor shakes head sorrowfully, Morgan says, "er, three?" and editor says, "here's a contract!" Which makes me a bit worried about whether the sequels will be any good, but yes, there are meant to be more; next one is called The Cold Commands and out next summer, in theory.

Glad you ended up liking this one, mostly, in the end, though. :)
OK, fair enough. I certainly felt that Ringil's characterisation improved as the novel progressed and that his stuff was the best written (it seemed fairly clear to me that he was the character the author was most interested in).

I'll be interested to see what the sequels are like - there's a risk of the Matrix effect, but maybe not. When are they coming out?