Book Review – The Sword of Shannara – Terry Brooks

I suppose that it would be best to start this review by describing my decision to buy The Sword of Shannara in the first place. I have read a lot of fantasy in the past and quite a bit of what I still have in my bookshelves is fantasy based, this is a hangover from when fantasy was my staple genre, back in the day. I tended to read around a small number of authors. Two that spring straight to mind are R.A.Salvator who’s forgotten realms books were brilliant, and David Gemmell who produced some (IMHO) sublime fiction along with some pretty trashy hack and slash! I did read a few others, but I have a bit of a back log of David Eddings, Robert Jordan and Stephen Donaldson (among others) that all hail from that time in my life. Since then my taste has grown and expanded, but so too has fantasy with spectacular work from the likes of Joe Abercrombie (Did I mention I really really like the first law trilogy? If not, I have now. Brilliant books…)

I have, over many years, also dabbled with writing books. My best friend in school and I used to talk about books and writing constantly. He managed to write a whole book while he was doing his A-Levels, but although I thought it was great, he didn’t think it was good enough to send to any publishers, so it is still sitting in his metaphorical bottom drawer… In more recent years I have read a couple of books by successful authors about how they write and about writing theory in general. At least one of these mentioned that The Sword of Shannara was a pivotal book in the development of fantasy, being published at the start of (or being part of the initiation of?) a big rise in the popularity of the genre. This thought skipped gaily into my head one day while I was staring at a rack of books in a charity shop. “Coo,” said I, “there’s that book wot i dun read ’bout.” I bought it, stashed it in the book shelf and that was the end of that episode of my literary life.

With a back story like that it was with more than a little trepidation that I started The Sword of Shannara. Was I going to love it and understand how this book started a fantasy revolution? Or was I going to find it a bit sedentary, the first of a genre introduced with a dodgy basic plot and simple characterisation? The answer is actually a bit of both.

I cottoned on quite early that The Sword of Shannara was, shall we say, quite closely aligned to J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I was a bit miffed at this to be honest. Firstly, because you have a good idea of the main plot, and secondly, this was meant to be a seminal work (relatively speaking.) It helped launch the fantasy genre into the main stream, and it did it by almost completely nicking the main plot and characterisations from the grand master himself. I almost put the book down. Almost, but I didn’t. I had read to  a point just short of half way through the book. I managed to push through acceptance of the LOTR thing. My endurance was rewarded with some really great new characters and a post apocalyptic angle that was similar to the Jon Shannow books by David Gemmell. (did David G get the idea from here – The Sword of Shannow!) Linking Fantasy worlds to ours in any way is dangerous. You have to walk a tightrope to keep the integrity of the story without mixing styles too much. I was surprised to find this plot line in one of the first modern fantasy books, but pleasantly surprised. I was by this point really enjoying the story, it had that fantasy style, so that I saw parallels with the books that I have read, and the book was finding its own voice with the remaining plot. But. This book was still not in the bag for me. I was still finding the quality of the writing challenging. Not plot or direction or even the majority of general grammar! There were loads of niggly little writing inconsistencies. These ranged from descriptive issues (fire made by Gnomes was “man” made) to the way that characters sometimes acted (being quite quiet then suddenly angry for no reason.) It felt like Terry Brooks had tried a bit too hard with the description and in doing so, over-cooking it and managed to add the odd problem. But I didn’t put the book down, and I am glad I didn’t.

So, everything picked up. The story diverged somewhat from LOTR, I found less issue with the writing and everything evened out into a better second half. It appears that this change occurred when Pannamon Creed and Ketleset joined the story. I have a feeling that they really did work on the plot, and the author) in the way that strong characters should. They re-invigorated everything. They gave a fresh viewpoint on what was happening, and I am glad to say that they stayed true to what I hoped they would be, even to the end of the book.

In conclusion, The Sword of Shannara is a good book. There were some pretty big problems with it, but I can see why it was part of the spark that started much more wide spread expansion of the fantasy genre. The book was published in 1977, and the original Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974, so I think Shannara was part of the push, and not the instigator. Either way, if you like Fantasy, this book is worth a read. Just be aware of the odd foible and you will be fine.

What the papers said at the time – Wikipedia

Rating: 7/10
The Sword of Shannara on Goodreads

Book Review – Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

I suppose that to start with I have to say that Altered Carbon is a very very good book. And that concludes the review. Thank you very much. Good night.
“Why, why?” I hear you cry. Harumph, Oh OK then.
I really got caught up in it’s pace , and since finishing it, I am having slight withdrawal symptoms! It’s an odd feeling I have only had for this long with a couple  other books. I’m now beginning to get into The Sword fo Shannara, but it has taken a while to calm down and relax back into nice calm forests, friends on adventures and the odd Warlock Lord’s minion whipping about creating terror. That seems pretty sedentary if you read it straight after Altered Carbon’s frenetic exploits!

Altered Carbon is a Complex cyberpunk murder mystery. I was originally skeptical of this claim as it seemed like a steep hill to climb.The whole cyberpunk genre is typified by it’s destructive activities, so how does one murder find its way to the top of the story line through all the conspiracy, cracking, hacking  or other subversive carrying on? How do you define one murder as central to the plot over all the other carnage on offer? Altered Carbon manages to deliver this via an additional dimension to the standard murder mystery paradigm introduced by, and not in-spite of the advanced technical setting. The use of the environment and the way that our evolution into it is used allows for many situation that should feel alien to us 21st century beings, but Richard Morgan’s captivating prose managed to take you along for the ride of your life (he he blurb cheese added on purpose.)

In the context of what I have read since starting this blog and why I’m doing it, I need to mention the society that Altered Carbon portrays. A far future where humans inhabit other worlds and have managed to shrug off their reliance on just one body provides a very interesting setting of a book. But look behind the main story and Altered Carbon is also a beautiful rendering of a future where capitalism is still the way things work. More to the point, if you strip away the technology and the years from Altered Carbon, you get a society not too far removed from that depicted in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists! The rich get richer and the poor are used and abused. The basic premise is further exacerbated when the Meths (a reference to Methuselah from the Bible) can live for hundreds of years and their superiority over normal people is further confirmed.
As I said (tweeted?) when I started this book, there is a lot of reviews splattered over the back page and the first couple of the edition that I have. I usually think that a book is trying too hard if it has that many reviews, but as they are there, I have copied them out below and formed the remainder of this review on what other people said 🙂

“Outstanding. This seamless marriage of hardcore cyberpunk and hard-boiled detective tale is an astonishing first novel.”
The Times

“Hits the floor running and then starts to accelerate. For a first novel it is an astonishing piece of work. Intriguing and inventive in equal proportions and refuses to let go until the last page. A wonderful SF idea.”
Peter F. Hamilton

I completely agree with Peter’s review, and coming from him that is praise indeed. I imagine what it would be like to write a book and then have such a glowing review come in from such a highly regarded author. WOW, that must be amazing.

“Carbon-black noir with drive and wit, a tight plot and a back-story that leaves the reader wanting a sequel like another fix.”
Ken Macleod

I definitely agree about the withdrawal symptoms as mentioned above. Like so many of the drugs described in the book. But I’m always apprehensive of sequels. I have been told that the remainder of the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons are epic, but the first book and specifically the end of the first book is so good and so complete in its own right that I can’t bring myself to read the rest (and I don’t own them so I can’t just yet anyway 🙂 )

“Brilliant. Unputdownable. Lots similar blurb-writing clichés, only in this case true. I lived it. It is expertly plotted, grips you throughout, a high-tech ride in which the shocks and excitement are placed with machine-tooled polish. It is also superbly written, passages of cool, detached writing that is wonderfully atmospheric, alternating with passages of ultraviolence brutal enough to be genuinely shocking ”
Adam Roberts

I like the cliche reference, very self conscious and I know what he means. Great to juxtapose these reviews with the really short one from Raven (near the bottom of the post.) Also, the book has a few sex scenes. They were very well written and didn’t make me cringe! Further more, the first major sex scene in the book was actually part of the plot! In my experience that is almost unheard of.

“Morgan’s first novel is a brilliant start to what promises to be an outstanding career. ALTERED CARBON captures the best of SF and spins it in a new direction that will not only have existing genre fans crying out for more, but will in all likelihood attract the biggest new readership since William Gibson made SF cool again. This is without doubt my hottest recommendation for 2002.”
Michael Rowley, Watertstones Enigma magazine

Michael might just be right that this book could be a gateway to the harder SciFi available on the streets these days. Maybe I should get my mum to try it, or my Bro’ as he got it for me in the first place? Comparing it to William Gibson, that’s a big claim, and to be honest, fair. It’s that good.

 “An exhilarating and glossy adventure punctuated by bursts of extreme violence. The plot reaches terminal velocity early on and stays there. What makes ALTERED CARBON a winner is the quality of Morgan’s prose. For every piece of John Woo action there is a stunning piece of reflective description, a compelling sense of place and abundant 24-carat witticisms. A commanding novel.”
SFX magazine

I agree. I’m not so sure about the wit though? One of the other reviews also mentioned wit. Don’t get me wrong, most of the wit is fine, but there was a couple of occasions where an overly cheesy line clanged a little and pulled me out of the book. In older cyberpunk and SF novels, these  lines weren’t so cheesy, they were new and fresh. A generation of books and films later, and they are beginning to be past it in a book as slick as Altered Carbon. So, should Mr.Morgan have abstained? no, of course not 🙂

 “A crisp, tight SF mystery. Its plotting is nothing short of first rate. The level of sheer pulp violence is almost exhilarating. ALTERED CARBON may be high-octane pulp, but it’s pulp that does exactly what it sets out to do.”

Sometimes the violence may have been a bit overdone. In most places the action is very well grounded to make the story feel real, but occasionally fingers get broken when the situation didn’t really call for it. The story wouldn’t have lost anything with a tiny teeny weeny bit less violence. I agree that the plotting was amazing. How did he do that?? (Grrrr.) Is it pulp?? Not according to me and all these other reviewers!!

“I was completely blown away by ALTERED CARBON. From the very first page, it’s a pure adrenalin rush of slick, hard-hitting prose, superb characterisation and a plot that grabs you and won’t let go. A superbly rich and varied feast of fiction. Richard Morgan is destined to be a very, very big name in science fiction circles for a long time to come. Welcome to the next big thing.”
The Alien Online

This is the first mention of characterisation in the reviews. Surprising since it is good, nay “superb”.

 “A superb SF Noir-thriller…truly remarkable. Brash and violent, highly intelligent and highly entertaining. Morgan bounds on to the stage with his debut performance and totally astounds the audience.”
SF Revu
“A first novel so exciting, so addictive and so bone-crunchingly in your face that it beggars the need for such virtual reality as it occasionally employs. This is a ceaseless, permanently off-balance sprint through an all-to-grimly-familiar future where miraculous technologies are degraded through everyday use and abuse. There are occasional throwaway mentions of background details here that beg entire novels on their own; ubiquitous pieces of history dismissed in single lines that had my nose twitching, scenting something far bigger lurking, hidden under the surface.”
Infinity Plus
The whole point of the Virtual reality is that you can be even more violent in it! The whole Altered Carbon idea detaches consciousness from body to allow the option of immortality if you can afford it, or at least the option for much more interesting torture techniques. The only thing people really have to deal with is the pain, and ain’t that the truth of life!!
The second half of this review is basically a long way of saying that Richard Morgan has successfully created a realistic world via the use of good story telling and strong preparation / imagination. Basically bloody good writing!
“Dazzling. An excellent, no-holds-barred, fast paced thriller with a strong central character and plenty of betrayals, twists, shocks and action.”
Dreamwatch Magazine
“A tautly plotted slice of noir…the sense of wonder is in the details. Morgan gives notice that there’s a new star in the SF firmament”
The Third Alternative
Nice use of the word firmament. Cap doffed.
“A homage to old-school cyberpunk…ALTERED CARBON reads like a hypermodern vampire novel.”
The Guardian
Obviously the vampire reference is due to all the castles, crypts, fangs and blood sucking??? I kinda get what they mean though.
“High-tension SF action, hard to put down, though squeamish readers may shut their eyes rather frequently.”
David Langford,
I’m not sure if this was an official review from amazon or a review that was plucked off the site?? Either way, when its a book and not a film, shutting your eyes doesn’t work! The bad bit won’t go on without you if your face is pointing at a book!
“Combining thought-provoking ideas with page-turning, intense narrative is no mean feat, but ALTERED CARBON delivers. Richard Morgan looks set to become one of sf-noir’s best, diamond-bright practitioners.”
So, there you have it. Half my review and half other peoples, but I think you will agree that it conveys my enjoyment of reading the book and my respect for Richard Morgan for writing it. Especially as it is his first novel. Having had a couple of novels floating around my head for many years, I know they need a lot more polishing (and actually writing something) before I risk them against the outside world as Richard Morgan has so successfully done.
Rating: 9/10
Altered Carbon on Goodreads

Book Review – Raven – Charles L. Grant

I finished Raven by Charles Grant last night and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started the book, but given the genre and the cover picture, I think I more or less got it! My only criticism is that I think the story deserved a stronger ending. The question in the back of your mind  throughout the read is “who or what is the raven?” I won’t spoil the book by suggesting any options, but suffice to say that I would have like to see an “oh my God, really!?” ending opposed to the bitter sweet “which do you think it was?” ending that you actually get. If you read this review then the book, hopefully this information will prompt you to pay that bit more attention to the hints and cues. Maybe there is only one dedicate outcome and I just missed it.

Raven was one long build up of tensions not least aided by the absence of chapters! I have to admit that I didn’t actually notice there was no chapters until I read a review after I had finished it, but that’s not the point. Maybe under the circumstances, it is better and even more powerful to say that this book is so tense that you don’t even notice whether there are chapters or not! But I digress… The story built from a relatively relaxed start to an end where the atmosphere that could be cut with a knife (and a couple of people had a go too!) Here lies the strength of the book. It manages to slowly build, in the longest section for about 1/4 of the book, without feeling slow. Back stories are quietly wound into the events and conversations that occur in the motel, before long Charles Grant has you wondering when something big is going to happen while at the same time quite enjoying the build up and character reactions.

The main thrust of the book is based around the owner of the motel, Neil. It’s his 40th birthday that is being so severely interfered with! This fact is not really a central theme, but it’s mentioned enough to make sure it is regularly bought back into your mind. I got the feeling that although you never get a conclusive understanding of the reason behind the nights events, Neil’s birthday may have a lot to answer for! Maybe I’m being over sensitive as I am almost 40 myself? It feels weird to identify with that aspect of a book that I was lent it to read when I was 20! Maybe I knew I had to wait to get the best out of it?? That’s a long shot as far as excuses go, but I’m sticking with it!!

Raven was not a long book. I could say that this stopped the book losing pace, but I think Mr. Grant (Charles is to familiar and I hate it when articles go with surname only… Full Name or Mr.G, although I can live with dropping the L.) Has manages to condense what could have been a longer book, and for this fact I am extremely jealous…

A long time ago I came up with a concept that I never managed to write (no surprise there then.) I wanted to write what I think of as half way between a script and a book, using the readers own visual queues to paint a vivid picture for a story by only hinting at settings and feelings with minimal short sentences. For example:

Tropical island, beach, parasols, hotel bar, crystal clear water.

I wanted to invoke images with the minimal amount of intervention therefore keeping each readers pure memories or imagination instead of influencing them too much. I never managed to find a way to satisfy that goal and keep writing in a way that retained the required flow. I kind of assumed that’s why English has all those extra words in!! For me, Raven has come closer to that ideal than I have seen in any other book, and annoyingly Charles Grant has still managed to produce an evocative, readable text. My previous front runner was Neuromancer by William Gibson. That book is so visual and evocative of the environments that it portrays, but I always describe it as hard to read. My experience was one where I struggled for the first paragraph or so until I got into the book and “watched the film”. Each time I picked it up; clunk, clunk, clunk, then I was in. I experienced none of that with Raven. On the other hand, Raven was painting it’s story on a much smaller scale than Neuromancer. William Gibson’s book will always have a special place in my heart where Raven was just really good.

Review reviews

There are reviews on the back of Raven, so I thought it would be fun to comment on them for accuracy now that I have read it:-

“Grant’s style of horrors takes hold of your spinal cord and plays it like a violin. His prose leaks with moody atmosphere… And the pace never lags”
Mystery scene

I can’t agree with the first sentence of this comment, but the second is bang on.

“Smooth, sophisticated and frightening”
Publishers weekly

I’m not sure whether this comment was a a quick response when some likely words were asked for, or a very considered response by an impressed reader who took Charles Grant’s lead and removed as many superfluous words as possible. Either was, all of them fit a description of the book.

Rating: 8/10
Raven on Goodreads