No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, June 12, 2016

2016/37: The Raven King -- Maggie Stiefvater

It was a far more terrifying idea to imagine how much control he really had over how his life turned out. Easier to believe that he was a gallant ship tossed by fate than to captain it himself.[loc. 4176]

I don't think I can write an interesting and critical review of this final novel in the Raven Cycle without spoilers. Ye be warned.

In The Raven King, all -- most -- of the threads of the story come together. The quest for Glendower; the predictions made by Blue's family, and by the plethora of psychics that Gansey has consulted over the years; the magical community's interest in the Lynch family; the waking of the third sleeper; various flavours of sizzling romantic tension. There are frightened monsters, a toga party, sticky minutes*, ancient tree-spirits, racist jokes (the protagonists are teenaged and thus imperfect), and an explanation for the appalling Latin of the local magical forest. There are some deaths -- just as when reading the previous novel, I was surprised and shocked -- and some possessions, and a quantity of blood is (or appears to be) shed.

There's a scene where Henry Cheng is explaining the rapidity of his friendship with Gansey: "Not just pals. Friends. Blood brothers. You just feel it. We instead of you and me. That's jeong." [loc. 4420] There's a lot of it around: it defines Gansey's existing relationships with Adam, Noah, Ronan and Blue. They're learning to act together, to be greater than the sum of their parts: in the process, they're beginning to define -- and thus to change -- the relationships they have with one another. Stiefvater has done an exemplary job of differentiating the characters, and demonstrating the unique nature of each relationship in the web. For instance, Blue and Ronan react to one another in an almost fraternal way (and I use the term deliberately, because Ronan treats her as one of the boys). Ronan and Gansey have a quite different, but just as fraternal, bond: maybe Gansey's the older brother Ronan wishes he has instead of Declan. (Declan, neither dream nor dreamer, gets a raw deal, I think: he starts to become rather more interesting in this volume.) Blue and Gansey are in (doomed, storied, tentative) love.

Each of the protagonists, in this novel, is becoming more self-aware. In a previous review I suggested that they all want to be known: in The Raven King, they come to know themselves better. (Actually, this isn't restricted to the teenagers: Mr Gray finds love a transformative force. I suppose you might say the same for Colin Greenmantle.)

A lot of threads are not tied off. Is Noah's circle closed to such an extent that he is no longer remembered? Will Mr Gray ever return to Henrietta? How did the climax of the novel affect various off-stage characters? What are Maura's and Calla's jobs? But there is a satisfactory closure to the main cycle, and to the individual arcs of the protagonists.

The books are not flawless, and neither are the characters, and nor is the plot. Doesn't matter. I was captivated. These are books I will return to at some future date, when my life may be quite different: I hope I will adore them even half as much as I do now.

* in the sense of minutes that stick. 6:21, 6:21, 6:21 ...

Saturday, June 11, 2016

2016/36: Blue Lily, Lily Blue -- Maggie Stiefvater

...what she didn't realize about Blue and her boys was that they were all in love with one another. She was no less obsessed with them than they were with her, or one another, analysing every conversation and gesture... spending each moment either with one another or thinking about when next they would be with one another. Blue was perfectly aware that it was possible to have a friendship that wasn't all-encompassing, that wasn't blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening. It was just that now that she'd had this kind, she didn't want the other.[loc. 1288]

The third novel in the Raven quartet focuses on the women: on Blue Sargent, who is coming to terms with her power as a 'mirror', amplifying others' psychic or magical powers; on her mother Maura, who left a laconic note about going underground and spends much of the book absent; on Calla and, particularly, Persephone; and on two new characters, Gwenllian (prone to mad songs and bad hair) and Piper Greenmantle (prone to narcissism and megalomania). 

Piper, to be honest, is probably having (and being) more fun than anyone else here. Her husband Colin -- who employed Mr Gray for murky purposes, and has come to Henrietta to find out why Mr Gray hasn't done his job -- adores her and appreciates her talents. "It was just that she didn't normally use her powers for good, and when she did, they usually weren't pointed at him. It was just, he hadn't thought she really liked him."[loc. 2090] It rapidly becomes evident that she is far better at being an evil genius than he is. Whatever, as Piper would say. The Greenmantles are a welcome, if cynical, injection of humour into an increasingly dark and dangerous story.

Meanwhile Gansey's aged friend, Professor Malory, has turned up with his service dog to help Gansey and company locate the leyline, Glendower et cetera. Persephone has cautioned them that there are three sleepers on the line: one to wake, one to definitely not wake, one in-between. Mr Gray has picked a side and is busily bonding with Blue. Noah is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Ronan and Adam decide it's up to them to deal with Colin Greenmantle, in a way that only the pair of them can. 

This is the darkest of the four books. There are deaths, some more shocking than others. There are adults with guns (though they are not the most dangerous characters). There are glimpses of the international trade in supernatural objects, a topic I find oddly fascinating. And I am very glad that I had the fourth and final novel waiting for me when I read the last words of Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Thursday, June 09, 2016

2016/35: The Dream Thieves -- Maggie Stiefvater

Gansey was polite in a way that squashed the other party smaller. Adam was polite to reassure. And this man was polite in a keen, questioning sort of way. He was polite the way tentacles were polite, testing the surface carefully, checking to see how it reacted to his presence.[loc. 2937]

Second in the Raven Quartet: this one is very much Ronan's story, and Adam's. Ronan is trying to make sense of the abilities he confessed to at the end of The Raven Boys, and attempting to decode the final phrase of his murdered father's last will and testament. Adam is learning to be a magician (his interactions with Persephone, one of the witchy women of Fox Way, are delightful) and wondering just what he has sacrificed to the forest. Gansey and Noah and Blue are all still searching for Glendower, among other things. And Mr Gray comes to town, searching for an object that can take things out of dreams and make them real.

I like Mr Gray very much. He is an academic turned hitman who can quote Anglo-Saxon poetry in the original, and whose favourite weapon is opportunity. He is terrifyingly efficient. He has a tragic past. He admires Alfred the Great. And he carries around a folder of his greatest hits -- in the sense of the college reading lists on which his 'not-unsuccessful' book, Fraternity in Anglo-Saxon Verse, is featured.

The most fascinating character in this book, though, is Ronan Lynch. Ronan didn't get any viewpoint narrative in The Raven Boys, perhaps because it would have given too much away too soon. Ronan's scenes are masterpieces of restraint, of showing rather than telling, an effect that's heightened by his inarticulacy and his tendency to express most emotions as anger. He is is a hurt, angry, grieving young man (and he does seem younger -- or perhaps more vulnerable -- than the others in some ways) who is negotiating several complex interactions with friends, family and rivals, and who's starting to know himself a little better than before. That's what all the Raven Boys want, after all: to be known.

The Dream Thieves also features some unsettling remarks from Calla (who can pick up psychic impressions from objects, as well as from people), a vanishing forest, and a discussion of the fact that there's no word for blue in Ancient Greek. (Given the female protagonist's name, plenty could have been done with that.) And there are many secrets, some of which aren't known to the people they most concern. Plenty of character development -- not just for the teenaged protagonists, and not just for the characters introduced in The Raven Boys -- and plenty of plot. This is a novel of the fantastic that's very firmly rooted in the mundane world, even if its characters occasionally seem detached from that world.

With hindsight, I think this may be my favourite of the four novels.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

2016/34: The Raven Boys -- Maggie Stiefvater

With the words 'ley line' spoken aloud, a memory was conjured: [he was] in a dense wood, sweat collected on his upper lip. He was seventeen and shivering. Every time his heart beat, red lines streaked in the corners of his vision, the trees darkening with his pulse. It made the leaves seem like they were all moving, though there was no wind. [His friend] was on the ground. Not dead, but dying.[loc. 907]

The Raven Quartet is built on a bed of fairytale tropes ('once upon a time there was a girl who would kill her true love if she kissed him'; 'once upon a time there was a boy who was given a second chance') but it's far from a fairytale aesthetic.

Blue Sargent is the daughter of the town psychic, and has grown up knowing that she'll kill her true love if / when she kisses him. For this reason she has abjured love and boys, especially 'raven boys' -- pupils at the exclusive Aglionby Academy. Blue herself has no psychic powers, but the women she grew up with (her mother Maura, plus Calla and Persephone) most definitely do have power, and Blue acts as an amplifier. This brings her to a ruined church and a vigil for the spirits of those who will die in the year ahead -- and Blue sees her first spirit.

Turns out it's a Raven Boy: the couth and handsome Richard Gansey III (known as just Gansey). He and his friends, Adam and Ronan and Noah, at first seem like typical Aglionby pupils: rich, privileged, arrogant and loud. But as Blue gets to know them better (and vice versa) their personalities emerge. Adam is far from rich, working three jobs to pay his tuition and struggling with a difficult home life. Ronan has a taste for road racing and bad language -- he's got worse, apparently, since his father was murdered -- but he also has a pet fledgling (a raven, of course). Noah ... well, Noah's a bit vague. (Actually this is not true. Noah is perfectly truthful and open. It's just that nobody listens.) And Gansey -- who survived, or was brought back after, a lethal hornet attack seven years before -- is convinced that somewhere in the lush Virginia countryside lies the tomb of Owen Glendower, who will grant a favour to the person who finds and wakes him.

I think the charm of this book, for me, was in the way that the relationships between the characters (teenaged and adult) were developed. I liked Maura and Calla's no-nonsense approach to their predictions; the various systems of magic in play; the slow revelation of the characters' pasts ... It's also a really interesting angle on class in America, a phenomenon about which I know little except that it's different to class in the UK.

I should note that I read all four books in the series in rapid succession. This first volume feels like Gansey's story, and Noah's. And with hindsight I wonder if Gansey is a kind of father figure to the others. He's mature for his age: he's been surprisingly independent for the last few years, travelling the world in search of the mystical and hidden. The others have absent fathers (emotionally rather than literally in Adam's case): they look to Gansey as their leader, though he knows he needs them as much as they need him.

I'd bounced off the sample chapters, for some reason, but once I engaged with The Raven Boys I read it in one sitting, and promptly ordered the next one. Review soon!

Monday, June 06, 2016

2016/33: Enemies at Home -- Lindsey Davis

We sent Polycarpus in a haze of myrrh to whatever gods he had honoured. He may have had none at all, but everyone has gods imposed on them at their funeral. This is the divinities' revenge for lack of belief.[loc. 3080]

This was a good read but I find I don't have much to say about it. Setting: Imperial Rome, under the Emperor Domitian. Flavia Albia investigates the murder of a wealthy couple: their slaves, liable to be blamed, have sought sanctuary at the Temple of Ceres. But is the murderer one (or more) of the slaves? Why don't their accounts match up? Would the philosopher among them have murdered his mistress simply because he loathed her lapdog?

Meanwhile, Albia and Faustus are circling one another. Albia is attracted to Faustus, but can't tell whether Faustus (out of her league socially) is attracted to her.

Plenty of observations about slavery in Roman society; interesting frisson between Albia and Faustus; usual red herrings, sordid goings-on amongst the aristocracy, and quaint local customs. A page-turner, but it hasn't stuck.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

2016/32: The Ides of April -- Lindsey Davis

As a female I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me? [loc. 116]

I found the later Falco books hard going -- I think I'd missed a couple in the series, and lost track of the large cast -- but was in the mood for Ancient Rome, so decided to give the Flavia Albia books a try. Albia is the adopted British daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina. At the beginning of The Ides of April, she is in her late twenties, a widow, living alone in the Aventine and working as a private investigator. As a woman, she has few rights, but Albia is stubborn and clever and determined. And -- essential in the turbulent, repressive society of Domitian's Rome -- she's cynical.

Albia investigates the case of a woman who died in strange circumstances, and discovers that there have been a number of similar, and similarly inexplicable, deaths all over the city. 'No explanations, and no mark on them.' She is helped by the dashing young archivist Andronicus, and eventually by the less dashing, less young Tiberius: the two do not like one another, for reasons that neither will explain to Albia. Both are connected with the aedile Manlius Faustus, who seems to be implicated in the deaths somehow.

Also, it's nearing the Cerialia -- the Games of Ceres -- in which wild foxes are burnt alive, respectable women dress in fake Hellenic costume, and there are more tourists than ever. (Albia does not like tourists.)

Quite a few reviewers have mentioned Albia's bitterness and cynicism, and the chip on her shoulder. I did not notice this, which may be because I am equally bitter and cynical! I rather liked Albia, who is adept at making the most of her limited opportunities and maintains her dignity despite some trying circumstances. And I find Davis' depiction of life as a woman in Imperial Rome wholly convincing.

For those expecting cameos from Falco et cetera, these are minimal and Davis -- rightly, I think -- doesn't linger on them. This is Albia's story, and I found it interesting enough to read the second one immediately after the first.

Friday, June 03, 2016

2016/31: Europe at Midnight -- Dave Hutchinson

I still wasn't sure whether England was in Europe or not; I had the impression that the English would have quite liked to be in Europe so long as they were running it, but weren't particularly bothered otherwise. [loc. 4054]

Second in the trilogy that started with Europe in Autumn: I liked that very much, and Europe at Midnight is equally engaging whilst having quite a different tone.

The anonymous first-person narrator (who sometimes goes by the name Rupert of Hentzau) is Professor of Intelligence at the University -- a vast, sprawling institution riven by conflict. ("I'm still helping to prepare the case against the Arts faculty.") I understand that academia is an innately cutthroat environment but this seems rather more extreme than the usual: mass graves, escape groups, martial law, executions et cetera. It is, apparently, impossible to escape the University. The forest and mountains beyond the river are unreachable.

Also, there's an outbreak of an especially virulent flu, and rumours of something ugly being discovered in the Science Faculty's labs...

Back in Britain (well, England), intelligence officer Jim is investigating a routine stabbing in Finchley. Except there's something odd about the victim. He's not from around here.

Rupert and Jim, it turns out, are approaching the same intrigue from different angles, with little overlap in their knowledge or understanding. They're both good men, in the sense that Le Carre's protagonists are good men: not afraid to uphold their principles and enact their loyalties by any means necessary; determined to do the job that needs doing; plagued by self-doubt, telling themselves they are the good guys.

The University is creepily like a Conservative party political broadcast: 'The Community was dull. It was nice and it was quiet, if you lived in the right places, and there was full employment and nobody was starving and everybody was happy. It was no wonder people wanted to leave.' [loc. 5177] And the fractured Europe in which Jim lives is even more horribly credible than it was when the novel was published. Case in point: the Eurovision Song Contest has nearly 600 entries and takes place over a week.

In Europe at Midnight we learn more about the Community -- the hidden state existing parallel to our own -- and there are brief appearances by a couple of characters from Europe in Autumn. It is, as well as being a Cautionary Tale in these post-referendum days, often very funny. But where it excels is in its depiction of the alliances, friendships, romances and feuds that web together the University, the Community and the fragments of Europe. Hutchinson manipulates a large cast of varied characters without compromising their individuality or their agendas, and shades his Borgesian espionage thriller with plenty of emotional colour.

I am really looking forward to the final part of the trilogy, Europe in Winter, due in November.