Category Archives: Book Review

Hitler’s War by Harry Turtledove: Book Review

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Image by gwydionwilliams via Flickr

Hitler’s War by Harry Turtledove. I haven’t read any of Mr Turtledove’s stuff before, so I picked this up with some excitement and trepidation – you never quite know if you are going to like a new author or not!

I found it quite an unusual book in some ways.

The story is told from various viewpoints but all by someone on the front-line of the war – whether privates and NCOs fighting with the armies of the warring countries, or pilots and a U-boat captain, or civilians directly affected by the war. The action is largely away from the planning of the war and the grand view of the generals and politicians, and concentrates on the effects of war on the common soldier and civilian.

Although Turtledove does a good job of giving us a good feel of what war would be like for all his different characters, I do find it disconcerting that all his characters have an American tone of voice. The book has more the feel of a comic book strip sometimes because of this.

Also I was puzzled about where the book was going. You don’t actually get any resolution. The war doesn’t end, but just seems to be entering a new phase, one that is different from original history. I suspect that other books will follow, but this is not at all clear from anything printed in the front-matter or on the front and back covers. Wikipedia states that the novel is part of a series.

Overall I found the style engaging and readable, but ultimately I didn’t feel that I was any the wiser. Why did Turtledove see the events of WWII happening differently? The book doesn’t seem to answer that fundamental question. Also I found the structure of stringing together a series of vignettes to describe the experience of a large cast of characters ultimately unsatisfying. A lot of the episodes felt very similar, yet I never really had the feeling for what one character’s overall experience was like because the narrative never stayed with anyone for very long.

I think I would try another of Turtledove’s books, but probably not from this new series.

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: Book Review

First paperback edition book cover
Image via Wikipedia

Fact is stranger than fiction, and fiction is nothing unless it tells the truth. Powerful and moving stories often tell us something true about life, about the world and about ourselves, even if the details have been manufactured inside the author’s brain. The Kite Runner, one of the most popular more high-brow novels of recent years has been successful because of the moving story it tells of human weakness and redemption, set in a country, Afghanistan, that we have all become more familiar with for all the wrong reasons.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini tells the story of Amir, son of a privileged oligarch living in Kabul during the 1970s in Afghanistan. Amir grows up alongside Hassan, the hare-lipped son of the family’s principal servant Ali. Although of a very different background, Hassan is Amir’s childhood companion, yet at the same time is also resented by Amir, who is jealous of any affection shown the boy by his own father. The story covers Amir’s struggles to come to terms with his relationship with Hassan and his father, and historically covers the period from the end of the monarchy in the 1970s to the US invasion in 2001.

The book is a quick read although also a harrowing one, with death, rape, guilt and destruction common presences throughout its pages. I can’t say much more about the plot without giving away too much, but I would recommend that you read it yourself.

Although the Kite Runner is a heart-wrenching and powerful story, I get the feeling, especially during the last act of the book that rather present a “real” story of this war-ravaged country, the author is carving out a book with a powerful narrative arc, one that hits all the emotional and thematic buttons – for instance the kites and the redemption of being able to make up to Hassan by adopting his son etc etc. It’s all a bit too convenient and well-fitting. So despite the truly harrowing and sad story, the book left me feeling that I had ready something contrived rather than something true.

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Ghostmaker by Dan Abnett: Book Review

Ghostmaker by Dan AbnettGhostmaker by Dan Abnett is the first Warhammer or Warhammer 40k tie-in novel that I have read.

When I was a teenager I was an enthusiastic player of Warhammer and to a lesser extent Warty Thou as we we called Warhammer 40K. The Black Library books have now become a publishing force in their own right that is just part of the massive Warhammer franchise. It really is impressive to see what the Games Workshop guys have done over the last 20 or so years. I do still yearn for those youthful days when White Dwarf was a bit more accessible and not just a Games Workshop mag – you could have all sorts of articles in there once upon a time, as long as they were RPG related.

Ghostmaker by Dan Abnett follows the fortunes of Gaunt’s Ghosts or the Tanith First and Only regiment that he commands. The book takes us from their unfortunate formation (there were supposed to be three regiments, but when Gaunt gave the order to abandon their home planet, most of the troops were lost), through a number of battle encounters with the forces of Chaos. Chaos seems to be the main enemy nowadays, although I do remember Space Orks used to play quite a big role, but perhaps not now?

The plot is fairly episodic with each chapter based on a separate engagement, but there are threads running through it – for instance the resentment felt by one of the characters, Major Rawne, towards the hard-faced Gaunt, who he hates for letting Tanith be destroyed. But I do get the impression that the book works almost like a comic strip (where Abnett) has his routes, with each chapter forming almost a separate story. I have also read that the book is made up of a collection of short stories from Inferno! magazine, which would explain things.

Between each chapter the story swings back to the planet Monthax where the Tanith First and Only are currently based, each of these interludes serves to introduce the next story in effect. However, we do eventually end up with the last fifth of the book telling us what happened to the regiment on Monthax. It’s quite a good ending to the book – a good way to bring some of the characters together.

The book is perhaps a bit too geared towards war and battles for my liking – it can be unrelenting, and sometimes this just becomes a bit of a blur as you read – one section could be much like another. However, it is well written, gritty and page-turning stuff. I can see myself trying one or two more of these books. Especially if they are less episodic than this one.

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The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie: Sneak Preview and Back Cover Copy

I feel awfully late picking up on this, but there’s a new Joe Abercrombie book in the works called The Heroes. It won’t be out until January 2011, so expect lots of teaser material until then from Joe and his publishers Orion Books.

Here’s a bit to be going on with:

Firstly a sneak preview at the Orion Books site of the first chapter. While Joe himself promises a longer extract in due course.

And secondly the back cover copy:

They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbour, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them.

Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced master swordsman, has sworn to reclaim his stolen honour on the battlefield. Obsessed with redemption and addicted to violence, he’s far past caring how much blood gets spilled in the attempt. Even if it’s his own.

Prince Calder isn’t interested in honour, and still less in getting himself killed. All he wants is power, and he’ll tell any lie, use any trick, and betray any friend to get it. Just as long as he doesn’t have to fight for it himself.
Curnden Craw, the last honest man in the North, has gained nothing from a life of warfare but swollen knees and frayed nerves. He hardly even cares who wins any more, he just wants to do the right thing. But can he even tell what that is with the world burning down around him?

Over three bloody days of battle, the fate of the North will be decided. But with both sides riddled by intrigues, follies, feuds and petty jealousies, it is unlikely to be the noblest hearts, or even the strongest arms that prevail.

Three men. One battle. No Heroes.

Three men. One battle. No Heroes.

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The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Dr Jekyll and Mr HolmesWith the excellent Sherlock BBC series getting such a good audience at present, anything Sherlock Holmes related is bound to be popular. I see that Titan Books are releasing another in their series of Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series in October 2010, titled The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes

Here’s the synopsis:

When Sir Danvers Carew is brutally murdered, the Queen herself calls on SHERLOCK HOLMES to investigate. In the course of his enquiries, the esteemed detective is struck by the strange link between the highly respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll and the immoral Edward Hyde. Can he work out what it is that connects the two men or is it mystery even beyond the skills of the great Sherlock Holmes?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyles timeless creation returns in a new series of handsomely designed detective stories. The Further Adventures series encapsulates the most varied and thrilling cases of the worlds greatest detective.

Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review recently reviewed an earlier title in the series and didn’t give it particularly good reviews, so I’m not sure if I would read this one or not. However, I think the author might be different.

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Top 5 Favourite Historical Novels

Cover of "The Last English King"
Cover of The Last English King

These are my top 5 “Straight” Historical Novels. That means there’s no alternate version of history or any fantasy element to them. I might do a couple more favourite lists to cover alternate history and historical fantasy another time. They do of course feature characters that are fictional in some cases rather than historical.

1. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The classic medieval mystery. Eco does a remarkable job of showing off his knowledge of the period without being boring and creating a clever mystery as well.

2. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

One of my favourite adventure stories, this is told at a rattling pace and features some excellent historical characters such as the Cardinal and the King, as well as memorable fictional ones as well.

3. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Like Eco O’Brian does not shy away from a wealth of detail in his setting, which I think really enhances the story he has to tell.

4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

One of my all time favourite novels. Written about 60 years after the events it describes, it’s perhaps easy to not think of this as historical fiction in some ways – one might imagine that Tolstoy is relating a story that is nearly contemporary. However, the events of 1812 in particular, were symbolically essential to the idea of Russian nationality, and Tolstoy writing on the nature of history and great men is essential reading. But the heart of War and Peace is a very human story.

5. The Last English King by Julian Rathbone

1066 from the viewpoint of the English. This is an excellent interpretation of the events of the Norman invasion.

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New Historical Fantasy: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Pitched as “Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” this debut novel called Shades of Milk and Honey sounds intriguing. I’m not sure about the movie promo technique of trying to compare it to other books though. The Jane Austen allusion would actually put me off a bit, whereas I’m very interested in the comparison to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

There is a sample chapter, which is very Jane Austen like, and also a trailer, see below, which looks lovely, and presumably alludes the story as well. Interesting, but I wonder if this is another form of mash-up rather than something original like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

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A Song of Ice and Fire and Medieval Warfare

Depiction of a late 13th century joust in the ...
Image via Wikipedia

Although George R. R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire series are fantasy fiction, and therefore anything goes, there is no denying that it is set within a fairly strong medieval setting. The Knights, titled Ser rather Sir, ride warhorses, joust with lances, feast in castle halls etc. I think one of the strengths of the series is the setting which gets close to the feel of medieval warfare and chivalry but introduces some interesting fantasy elements as well.

However, there are a couple of things that have niggled me while reading A Clash of Kings this week. Both are two do with the practicalities of warfare:

  1. Cloaks! The city watch of King’s Landing are called the gold cloaks and the queen’s guard are the red cloaks, king’s guard are the white cloaks and then there’s the black cloaks of the Night’s Watch. This doesn’t work for me. When have you ever seen medieval knights (in pictures from the Middle Ages, not modern day films) running and riding around with cloaks on. Think about it for a second if you were fight with shield, lance, sword, warhammer or whatever, the last thing you need is a cloak getting in the way. Maybe on the march these would be worn, but they would hardly be the main motif. More probable would be a badge, like the livery badges worn by soldiers to denote their affinity in the middle ages. Famously Richard II’s men had a white hart badge for example, while John of Gaunt’s men wore a double SS badge which could be on their sleeve, chest or collar even. A surcoat over an armoured coat would also be quite common and might give a more prominent single-colour effect.
  2. Siege Engines! Renly Baratheon has a massive army that he is taking north to besiege King’s Landing (probably impossibly large by the way at about 100,000 men, but that’s another matter). And along with his army he bringing a whole load of siege engines including a huge siege tower. If you were marching anywhere along roads that probably weren’t going to be the best would you build your siege engines first and then take them with you? What would probably happen is that siege engines would be built when the siege happened. Either from locally sourced materials (very eco-friendly) or very possibly from pieces the army transported in wagons. Imagine getting a large siege tower to fit down a tree lined lane somewhere in the countryside or through a town with buildings leaning over into the road. There is evidence that favoured siege engines like the trebuchet that Prince Louis brought from France to besiege Dover Castle, were transported. But I think it is very likely that it would be brought in pieces and then put together at its destination. I know Renly’s supposed to be a bit dim, but that dim?

To me these are partly historical errors (which could be excused because it’s not historical fiction), but also logical errors. Cloaks in combat don’t work so why call your elite fighting unit by that epithet, and massive siege engines are just going to be very difficult to transport fully constructed.

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A Clash of Kings: Whose Story is it?

A Clash of Kings
Image via Wikipedia

I have noticed while reading A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, that there are lot of viewpoint characters in this book. This owes something to the complexity of the plot and the diaspora of the Stark family perhaps, but I think it’s also a conscious technique by Martin to keep the reader in touch with as much of the action as possible wherever it is happening. However, as a reader I do feel a bit dazed at times trying to keep up with all the different characters. In many books with multiple viewpoint characters, you might perhaps see the story form the perspective of 3 or maybe 4 characters. The books of Iain Banks or Leo Tolstoy are good examples of this. But I don’t think I have ever read a book with so many as Marting’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

I did some counting to work out whose story it was and here’s a graph showing the numbers of chapters told from the viewpoint of each character.

Clash of Kings POV Character Chapters
Number of Chapters per POV Character in A Clash of Kings

Tyrion Lannister, whose on the other side from the Starks, but not a villain as such gets the most, followed by Arya. The other members of the Stark family, including the bastard son of Eddard, Jon Snow, then get quite a few chapters each as well. It’s quite interesting to do this sort of analysis actually. In particular you can see how the pace of the book picks up with shorter chapter lengths and toing and froing between certain key characters. My plan is to take another look at the stats once I have finished to see how they reflect the whole story.

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Remembering all the Characters from A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin

A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin

A couple of days ago I started reading the second volume of  A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin, A Clash of Kings. I read the first book, A Game of Thrones, a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it, but I hadn’t had time to pick up the second book until this week.

George RR Martin has created a great series and a very well constructed and vivid background world. And that’s what has actually given me a few problems in the last few days. I have had a real struggle to get into it again. Many of the first chapters of A Clash of Kings provide you with a bit of a summary of what happened previously, as well as telling you what’s happening now to the characters. What happens is the characters tend to talk to each other about what the current situation is and their plans. And this has been a steep remembering curve for me, with several glances to the lists (massive lists) at the back of the book, which are immensely helpful.

The world that George RR Martin creates is so detailed that I have had real problems trying to keep up, but slowly I’m getting there!

I respect George RR Martin for not just providing and idiot’s “Previously on A Song of Ice and Fire…” section at the start of A Clash of Kings, but in a way I’m such an idiot for not reading it sooner, that I probably needed it!

But after reading about 70 pages things are slowly coming back to me, and I’m hoping that the rest of the book will be an easier ride. Martin’s writing is amazing and I’m enjoying the bits without too many names a lot!

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