“Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee

11 Mar

“Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee (218p)

South African Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for 1999’s Disgrace. It is a story about a South African literary scholar and professor who “disgraces” himself at his job and in society, and runs away to redeem himself in the country in a telling of modern life in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

(plot summary from Wikipedia)
David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his good looks, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter. He is twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a Communications professor, teaching one specialized class in Romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. His “disgrace” comes when he seduces one of his students and he does nothing to protect himself from its consequences. Lurie was working on Lord Byron at the time of his disgrace, and “the irony is that he comes to grief from an escapade that Byron would have thought distinctly timid.” He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his daughter’s farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter’s influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after becoming comfortable with rural life, he is forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm in which his daughter is raped and impregnated and he is violently assaulted.

In many ways, Disgrace is a bit of an unusual novel, at least for me anyway. I say unusual because J.M. Coetzee has a very distinct style in the way he writes. His style lends itself to short, sharp and precise sentences which never meanders and drones on and on like authors have a tendency to do. Disgrace is also told at a relentless pace and moves from event to event, act to act, rather quickly. It is quite a short novel for this reason. But the skill in which Coetzee tells the story of David Lurie and his “disgrace” never suffers from the telling at such a swift pace, and the reader gets a full understanding of the self-destruction this man puts himself through with his inability to make the right choices. Lurie’s systematic destruction of his own life and career is met with a continual indifference to his own plight, as if he were a man that simply didn’t care about himself or the consequences of his own actions against himself because of his need to fulfil his vices and desires of lust.

Lurie is quite a complicated character and interesting in many ways. For one thing, even though he is the protagonist of the novel and the central figure of all the events which occur within it, he is a completely unlikeable character. Rude, pompous, arrogant, narcissistic, condescending, and conniving are all words I would use to describe David Lurie. That is not to say he doesn’t care about just himself. As he moves on from Cape Town and flees from his disgrace, Lurie’s deep love and care for his only child, Lucy, clearly becomes evident. From this readers understand Lurie would do anything for Lucy and indeed, I was under the impression she is the only thing Lurie cares more about than himself. Lucy is just as complicated and altogether messed up as her father is and displays a number of similar characteristics to him, with the difference being Lurie is a wildly passionate man while Lucy displayed a coldness and an unwillingness to do anything than her lot in life.

Lurie and Lucy are the two most prominent characters of note, but the other characters in Disgrace are similarly unlikeable. If I had to meet them, I wouldn’t exactly be on great terms with them I think. All of this is told against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa, a country in which the social issues run so deep it is hard to imagine. Coetzee does not shy away from this and explores the difficulties in rural South Africa between once dominant whites and the poor black majority. It is a dangerous place to be and one in which there is a daily struggle for survival amidst poverty, corruption, theft and rape. The fact that South Africa is probably one of the worst countries in the world is never left ignored in Disgrace – Coetzee never lets readers forget just what a dangerous country it is outside the relative safeties of Cape Town and other such cities.

As I said at the beginning of this review, J.M. Coetzee is a Nobel Prize winning author and received the Booker Prize for Disgrace, so when I picked up Disgrace a few months ago I did so in the knowledge that it would probably be good. An author doesn’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature by producing same old, same old unimaginative garbage. Certainly Disgrace did not disappoint and is an excellent novel, one in which I found no difficulty in reading or enjoying the story. The characters are different, the setting is one in which provides an immensely interesting backdrop, and the story is ultimately one of redemption – who can’t understand and relate to Lurie in some way? We have all made mistakes in our lives before. For that reason readers should enjoy Disgrace and find it a compelling story, if not find its main characters to be a pair of tosspots.

9/10.

“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell

3 Mar

“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell (453p)

Azincourt is a stand-alone novel by British author Bernard Cornwell. Published in 2009, Azincourt depicts the infamous Battle of Agincourt in 1415 of the Lancastrian Hundred Years War and the story of archer Nicholas Hook, a commoner with a dark past.

(plot summary from BernardCornwell.net)
Agincourt (Azincourt in French) is one of the most famous battles ever fought; the victory of a small, despised, sick and hungry army over an enemy that massively outnumbered it. Azincourt, the novel coming soon, tells the story of that small army; how it embarked from England confident of victory, but was beaten down and horribly weakened by the stubborn French defence of Harfleur. By the end of that siege common-sense dictated that the army sail for home, but Henry V was stubbornly convinced that God was on his side and insisted on marching from Harfleur to Calais to prove that he could defy the great French army that was gathering to crush him. He believed he could evade that army, but the march, like the siege, went disastrously wrong and the English were trapped and so forced to fight against an enemy that outnumbered them six to one. Azincourt is the tale of Nicholas Hook, an archer, who begins the novel by joining the garrison of Soissons, a city whose patron saints were Crispin and Crispinian. What happened at Soissons shocked all Christendom, but in the following year, on the feast day of Crispin and Crispinian, Hook finds himself in that small army trapped at Azincourt. The novel is the story of the archers who helped win a battle that has entered legend, but in truth is a tale, as Sir John Keegan says, ‘of slaughter-yard behaviour and outright atrocity’.

The story of Agincourt and Henry V’s army in northern France is told primarily through Nicholas Hook, an archer who escapes his enemies and a certain death sentence in England to seek his fortune and safety abroad. Hook is an interesting character, but not unlike most of Cornwell’s other heroes. You can clearly see the similarities between Hook and Sharpe, Uhtred, Derfel, and so forth. He has the same confidence, savagery in a fight, natural leadership, luck, and dare I say it, sex appeal as those characters have. But Hook is more than just a seemingly stock Cornwell character, and is his own man and stands alone as a protagonist. He is a complicated man and portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience, he tries to do the right and live life in the virtuous way seemingly expected of medieval men as followers of the church. Hook is also a violent, stuck in a long-lasting family feud with the Perrill family, and relishes the opportunities to exact his family’s revenge. He seemingly has no problem killing; and killing outside of battle, murdering. Parts of this generational feud shape Hook as the story goes on as well, indeed it was the conflict with the Perrill family and their ally, Sir Martin, which sends Hook to France in the first place.

As a character, I enjoyed Hook, and did not find too similar to Cornwell’s other heroes to become bothered by it and rather took in him for what he was. I found his personal battle with his conscience, something that is a theme of the story, to be quite interesting. Like I said, he was a man seemingly intent on doing good, but he enjoyed doing bad when he had to. I have no doubts if he was able to Hook would have murdered and destroyed the entire Perrill clan. On the other hand, he is a deeply religious man, yet seemed at odds with his faith, unable to make sense of the needless slaughter surrounding him and if his King’s cause was just. Hook allows the dead saints – fittingly Crispin and Crispinian – to speak to him and play a part in his battle with his conscience.

As is usually the case with Cornwell, the side characters are strong in their support of Hook. Cornwell writes Melisande as another complicated person with a dark past, and she is a fitting companion for Hook as the two mesh well. It’s a believable man/woman relationship. And of course, Cornwell laces the story with depictions of historical figures. Sir John Cornewaille, the famous knight, is a key part of the story and his prominence not only gives the story a consistent authority figure Hook can defer to, but also its light heartedness. Cornewaille is depicted as a brash knight unafraid to speak his mind and his rants and bouts of anger are actually rather comical than overly serious. There is also of course the King: Henry V. Henry, from what I know about him, is fairly accurately portrayed, and like Hook and the other side characters, is a pretty complicated man. Deeply religious and bound by his God, Henry is also a soldier’s king, known for willingly throwing himself into the fray and taking on all comers in battle. That aspect of Henry’s personality is never lost in the story. I think a lot of Henry’s dialogue and “screen time” is adapted from Shakespeare as well, and readers will be delighted to read the recounting of Henry’s pre-battle speech from Shakespeare ahead of the final battle.

Seasoned readers of Cornwell’s work will be accustomed to how his stories tend to go, and of course Azincourt follows all those which came before it. The fighting is savage and violent, told in near blood thirsty detail, and you are thrown into the Battle of Agincourt as if you were really there in 1415. The story of the archers’ plight and the hopelessness of the task they faced is never dumbed down or overlooked, he stresses just how monumental their task was: 5,000 archers and 1,000 men-at-arms and their king against the might of France and its 36,000 strong army. Not for a second is the difficulty and scope of their achievement not presented to the reader in a way that will make them not understand what happened, and appreciate it all the more. You get a great sense for what the men who drew these bows were like –ordinary people, tradesmen and journeymen the French held in contempt and fear. As for the rest of the novel, it is similar to most Cornwell work, but is still immensely enjoyable, and doubtlessly readers will find that same enjoyment I found taking in Nicholas Hook’s journey across France and redemption in England.

Azincourt is certainly recommendable. As a stand-alone novel it is great, and not encumbered by being a part of a long-running series, you can pick it up at any time. If you have read Cornwell in the past and enjoyed his stuff, but erred away from the long-running series then I think this is a novel you may enjoy. I certainly did, and found it to be one of his best for some time. It’s the perfect story for fans of action, adventure, violence, a little bit of romance and their heroes leading the way.

8.5/10.

“The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

27 Aug

“The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (597p)1

The Idiot is considered one of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces. Dostoyevsky is a literary giant from the Golden Age of Russian literature in the 19th century – The Idiot was first published in 1869 in St. Petersburg, later being published into English after the turn of the century. The Idiot is the story of Prince Lev Myshkin, an “imperfectly perfect man”, and his return to Russia following convalescence for his idiocy (epilepsy), where upon he is thrust into the middle of a struggle between a right kept woman and a gorgeous, virtuous girl, both after his affection.

(plot summary from SparkNotes)
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a fair-haired young man in his late twenties and a descendant of one of the oldest Russian lines of nobility, arrives in St. Petersburg on a November morning. He has spent the last four years in a Swiss clinic fir treatment of his “idiocy” and epilepsy. Myshkin’s only relation in St. Petersburg is the very distant Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin. Madame Yepanchin is the wife of General Yepanchin, a wealthy and respected man in his late fifties. The prince makes the acquaintance of the Yepanchins, who have three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya, the latter being the youngest and the most beautiful. General Yepanchin has an ambitious and rather vain assistant by the name of Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin (nicknamed Ganya) whom Myshkin also meets during his visit to the household. Ganya, though he is actually in love with Aglaya, is in the midst of trying to marry Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov, an extraordinarily beautiful “fatal woman” who was once the mistress of the aristocrat Totsky. Totsky has promised Ganya 75,000 rubles if he marries the “fallen” Nastassya Filippovna. As Myshkin is so innocent and naïve, Ganya openly discusses the subject of the proposed marriage in front of the prince.

The prince rents a room in the Ivolgin apartment, also occupied by Ganya, his sister, Varvara Ardalyonovna (Varya); his mother, Nina Alexandrovna; teenage brother, Nikolai (Kolya); his father, General Ivolgin; and another lodger by the name of Ferdyshchenko. Nastassya Filippovna arrives and attempts to insult Ganya’s family, which has refused to accept her as a possible wife for Ganya. Myshkin, however, stops her, putting her behavior to shame. Suddenly a rowdy crowd of drunks and rogues arrives, headed by Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, a dark-haired twenty-seven-year-old who is passionately in love with Nastassya Filippovna. Rogozhin promises to bring 100,000 rubles to Nastassya Filippovna’s birthday party scheduled for that evening at which she is to announce whether she will marry Ganya or not. Among the guests at the party are Totsky, General Yepanchin, Ganya, Ferdyshchenko, Ptitsyn—a usurer friend of Ganya’s who is a suitor to Varya Ivolgin—and a few others. With the help of Kolya, Prince Myshkin arrives as well, though uninvited. Following the prince’s advice, Nastassya Filippovna refuses Ganya’s proposal. Rogozhin arrives with the promised 100,000 rubles, but suddenly Myshkin himself offers to marry Nastassya Filippovna, announcing that he has recently learned he has a large inheritance. Though shocked at such a generous offer by an honest and generous heart, Nastassya Filippovna only deems herself worthy of being with Rogozhin, so she leaves the party with Rogozhin and his gang.

Prince Myshkin spends the next six months following Nastassya Filippovna as she runs from Rogozhin to the prince and back. Myshkin’s inheritance turns out to be smaller than expected, and it shrinks further as he satisfies the claims of creditors and alleged relatives, many of which are fraudulent. Finally, the Prince returns to St. Petersburg and visits Rogozhin’s house, which is a dark and dreary place. They discuss religion and exchange crosses. However, later that day, Rogozhin attempts to stab Myshkin in the hall of the prince’s hotel, but the prince is saved when he has a sudden epileptic fit. Several days later, Myshkin leaves for Pavlovsk, a nearby town popular for summer residence among St. Petersburg nobility. The prince rents several rooms from Lebedev, a rogue functionary. Most of the novel’s characters—the Yepanchins, the Ivolgins, Varya and her husband Ptitsyn, and Nastassya Filippovna—spend the summer in Pavlovsk as well.

Burdovsky, a young man who claims himself to be the son of Myshkin’s late benefactor, Pavlishchev, comes to the prince and demands money from him as a “just” reimbursement for Pavlishchev’s support of the Prince. Burdovsky is supported by a group of insolent young men who include the consumptive seventeen-year old Hippolite Terentyev, a friend of Kolya Ivolgin. Although Burdovsky’s claim is obviously fraudulent—he is not Pavlishchev’s son at all—Myshkin is ready and willing to help Burdovsky financially.

The prince spends much of his time at the Yepanchins’. Soon, those around him realize that he is in love with Aglaya and that she most likely returns his feelings. However, a haughty, willful, and capricious girl, she refuses to admit her love for Prince Myshkin, and often even openly mocks him. Aglaya’s family begins to treat him as her fiancé, and they even hold a dinner party with many renowned guests who are members of Russian high society. Myshkin, during the course of an agitated and ardent speech on religion and the future of aristocracy, accidentally breaks a beautiful Chinese vase. Later in the evening he has a mild epileptic fit. The guests and the family are convinced that the seemingly sickly prince is not a good match for Aglaya.

Aglaya, however, does not renounce Myshkin, and even arranges a meeting between herself and Nastassya Filippovna, who has been writing letters to Aglaya to convince her to marry Myshkin. During this meeting, the two women force the Prince to choose between his romantic love for Aglaya and his compassionate pity-love for Nastassya Filippovna. Myshkin hesitates briefly, which prompts Aglaya to run off, breaking all hope of an engagement between them. Nastassya Filippovna wishes to marry the Prince again, but in the end she proves unable to bring herself to do so, instead running off with Rogozhin at the last minute. The Prince follows the two to St. Petersburg the next day and finds that Rogozhin has stabbed Nastassya Filippovna during the night. The two men keep vigil over her body, which Rogozhin has laid out in his study. The epilogue relates that Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia, that Prince Myshkin loses his mind and returns to the Swiss sanitarium, and that Aglaya leaves Russia with a Polish count who lies to her and soon abandons her.
(end plot summary)

This was the second Dostoyevsky book I have read (the first was Crime and Punishment), bought from a second-hand bookstore in the city for $6. So I knew what I was getting myself in for tackling one of Dostoyevsky’s novels, particularly as I was only 19 at the time I read The Idiot. It wasn’t easy to read and I found it one of the more challenging novels I have ever read. A lot of the difficulty I had with The Idiot was the pace of the novel, which moved at the speed of a tortoise on a sedative. It is certainly a departure to what I am used to reading, then and now, but I found a lot of Dostoyevsky’s narrative to be completely boring. Boring and unnecessary and pointless. There is one scene; I forget where specifically, but at length a description of a veranda (porch) was given that went for three or four pages. Every little minute detail was put in front of me, but it was boring and not needed and I didn’t care.

Was it something I was missing? Is this sort of thing a hallmark of Russian literature I simply don’t get? I don’t know, it was this sort of humdum narrative that gradually turned me off The Idiot the more I read. I grew to dislike it the longer it went and for some reason, I kept reading until I eventually finished it. Forcing yourself to finish a novel is never a good sign you enjoyed it – and, to be honest, I didn’t. I liked it at the start and enjoyed some of the characters but the longer it went on the more I wanted to put it down and call it quits. The part spent at a summer retreat was painful and the part I hated most. I didn’t necessarily hate The Idiot, but I didn’t really like it all that much either and I was glad to have it finished when I finally did. Thank god I bought it for $6 …

It’s probably wrong of me to trash something of Dostoyevsky’s like this. Who am I to say this when Dostoyevsky is hailed as one of the greatest writers of all-time, a giant among giant Russian authors? I don’t know, maybe I’m not intelligent enough or have the patience to appreciate a work such as The Idiot, but I didn’t like it all that much. That is fairly obvious. By all means, read it yourself. I’m not discrediting Dostoyevsky and doubting his place in literature, but for me … eh, it’s just not my thing. I’ll stick to what I know and love I think.

4/10.

1 page length depends on which translation you have, mine is the 1913 translation by Constance Garnett.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” by J.K. Rowling

17 Jul

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” by J.K. Rowling (607p)

In 2007, the most eagerly anticipated novel was released to enormous global sales. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the culmination to J.K. Rowling’s world changing Harry Potter series, with the seven books in total reaching something like half a billion sales around the world. The finale sees Harry, united with his best friends, Ron and Hermione, searching out the magical elements keeping Voldemort alive to destroy and kill him.

CLICK FOR PLOT SUMMARY.

So … first of all, apologies for the epic plot summary (since changed – ed.). But for mine, this is probably the most anticipated novel of all-time and one I had been waiting for since I was 10-years-old, when I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wouldn’t have said my anticipation was as high as some others – I didn’t line up for hours to get it at midnight, in fact I strolled into an empty bookstore at about 4pm and got mine! – but I was still keen to know what happened and how this epic series ended. I had my own theories, of course, but I was utterly wrong. For one, I wanted Harry to be killed by Voldemort, simply because nobody else would have wanted to see that and it would have shocked millions. Sadly, it didn’t, and the epilogue was cringe-worthy. Which brings me to the Deathly Hallows …

There is no way J.K. Rowling could have written this novel without disappointing some people. The amount of build up and excitement for it is impossible to put into words – it was mad. And I have to say, I did enjoy it a lot. Like all the other novels I read it in one hit. Very few can make me do that but there has always been something about Harry Potter that let me read it so quickly, but I have only read it the once. Being perfectly honest I don’t think the Deathly Hallows was as good as some of the others for one reason: there was no Hogwarts. I’ve always thought Rowling struggled without the structure and confinement the school year provided, and sometimes it felt like the Deathly Hallows was a series of events loosely pieced together. Sometimes it does feel like “and this happened”, “then they did this,” and “then they went here and this is what happened.” Obviously, it all connects back to the main story, but some of it is a bit pointless and meandering. I don’t know, I guess expectations did play a part in this after all.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the Deathly Hallows. Far from it! I flew through it and very much enjoyed the story, and I liked seeing all the little things from the other six books finally answered after years of waiting. Much of the old magic, for lack of a better term, was still there in this one, and everyone enjoys the camaraderie between Harry, Ron and Hermione as they piece together the puzzle for the last time. And it was the last time, too, and I guess Harry ultimately defeating Voldemort is the way the Harry Potter series had to end. All in all, an enjoyable read, and a must read if only for its literary importance in popular culture.

7.5.10

“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Jun

“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell (378p)

In the fifth installment of British author Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories, The Burning Land, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg continues his fight for Alfred of Wessex, bound by oath. It is 893 and the Danes are massing again, planning yet another invasion of the Saxon lands in their never ending dream of conquering England for themselves.

(plot summary from Wikipedia)
At Alfred’s behest, Uhtred delivers a message to Haesten that Wessex would pay a ransom for Haesten to leave. Alfred cannot attack Haesten, because another Dane, Harald Bloodhair, has attacked at Cent. Haesten and Alfred reach an accord, and Haesten leaves hostages and accepts missionaries. The Jarl even undergoes baptism. However, Uhtred knows that the hostages are fake and that if Harald defeats Alfred, Haesten will attack London. While travelling to meet Alfred, now free to lead an army against Harald, Uhtred captures Skade, Harald’s woman. Skade is a formidable fighter in her own right, and leads one of Harald’s war parties. She and her party are captured while raiding a Mercian village. However, Harald approaches Uhtred leading a line of Saxon captive women, and threatens to kill all of them if Skade is not returned to him. After he butchers one woman in front of her child, Uhtred releases Skade to him. Skade intones an ominous curse against Uhtred as she and Harold make their escape. Uhtred and his men, however, defeat Harald’s forces at Farnham, and again take Skade prisoner. Harald is severely wounded, but escapes to Torneie Island (Thorney Island). There, with few followers, he is able to use the island’s natural defences, and a palisade he builds to repel later attempts to defeat him. However, he is trapped there.

While celebrating the Saxon victory at Farnham, Uhtred is devastated by news that his beloved wife, Gisela, has died in childbirth, along with the child she bore. When Uhtred and Skade return to London, Alfred’s advisor, Brother Asser (whose dislike of Uhtred long predates this story) uses the mad brother Godwin to denounce Gisela’s name, ranting that Gisela was the devil’s whore, and has come back from the dead as Skade. Uhtred flies into a rage and kills Godwin, though he says that he only meant to silence him. Retreating back to his house, Uhtred’s old mentor, Father Boecca, tells him that Alfred has ordered Uhtred to pay a huge fine and swear an oath to Alfred’s son Edward the Æthling. Alfred holds Uhtred’s children as hostage to his terms, and places them in the custody of Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and wife of Aelthelred, the ealdorman of Mercia. Furious, Uhtred reneges on his oath to Alfred and sails, with Skade, to his old friend Ragnar. Uhtred trusts Æthelflaed to protect his children.

Eager to use his newfound freedom and encouraged by Skade, Uhtred goes Viking. He sails to loot, kill and plunder Skirnir, Skade’s husband, and on the journey, he and Skade become lovers. After he defeats and kills Skirnir, however, he is disappointed when Skirnir’s treasure horde fails to meet his expectations. When Skade demands half of the horde as her share, Uhtred denies it to her. From that point on Skade becomes enemy to Uhtred. Sailing back to Ragnar’s fortress, Uhtred winters there. During that winter, Brida, Uhtred’s former lover who is now Ragnar’s wife, convinces Ragnar to attack Wessex alongside the other Northumbrian lords, Cnut and Sigrid. During the meeting, Haesten arrives and declares that he will attack Mercia. Haesten and Skade become infatuated with each other, and when Haesten leaves, Skade goes with him. Uhtred is caught in a conflict of loyalties, between the Danes with whom he was raised, and his oaths to Alfred and Æthelflaed. He also fears for his children’s safety, as they are in Mercia, in Æthelflaed’s custody. His indecision is broken when his friend, the Welshman Father Pyrlig arrives. Pyrlig reminds Uhtred that he has given his oath to serve Æthelflaed. Uhtred is reluctant at first, until Father Pyrlig tells him that “oaths made in love cannot be broken”.

Uhtred goes to serve Æthelflaed. He first has to rescue her from Lord Aldhem. Æthelred, Æthelflaed’s husband, wishes to divorce her, to break free of Alfred’s influence over Mercia. He directs Aldhem to have sex with Æthelflaed, either by seduction, or failing that, by force. Either act would make her an adulterer, allowing Æthelred to divorce her. Uhtred kills Aldhem, liberates Æthelflaed, and reunites with his children. He and Æthelflaed then go to Æthelred’s council, surprising him before the assembled Mercian lords. Warning of Haesten’s advance, Æthelflaed tries to win the Mercian lords to her side. She and Uhtred then wait at London for support. However, because Æthelred holds their purse-strings, none of the lords come, except for Lord Ælfwold. During this wait, Uhtred and Æthelflaed become lovers. Uhtred also learns that Alfred had advised Æthelflaed to use Uhtred’s oath to her to bring him back. Eventually, Edward Ætheling arrives, along with Alfred’s retainer and Uhtred’s friend Steapa, and an army of twelve hundred of Alfred’s best house troops. They also bear a message that Uhtred is to give his oath to Edward. Uhtred promptly refuses.

Thus reinforced, Uhtred marches ahead to Haesten’s two forts at Baemfleot (Benfleet), although Haesten is not there. Uhtred encounters and attacks a larger Danish force and is surrounded. He nearly loses the battle and his life, but is saved and the battle won by the timely arrival of Steapa and the rest of Alfred’s troops. They proceed to capture the first of the forts. Uhtred makes preparations for the next battle and begins teaching Edward how to lead from the front. Uhtred assaults the fort and scales the ditch, using sails with ropes sown into them to provide sure footing on the slippery ditch. He tries to use ladders to get up the wall, but the first assault fails. His second assault ultimately succeeds after Father Pyrlig throws specially prepared beehives onto the walls. The bees distract the defenders so that Uhtred’s force can scale the walls and capture the fort. In the hall Uhtred finds Skade and a horde of gold. Harald Bloodhair, crippled and vengeful over Skade’s betrayal with Haesten, suddenly appears, embraces Skade, and kills her at the same time. He then asks Uhtred to kill him. Uhtred does, then meets with Edward who says that he doesn’t need Uhtred’s oath as long as his sister has it. Uhtred and Æthelflaed then sail away from Baemfleot on the Thames.

I had been waiting for The Burning Land for some time, for this is one of my favourite series I have ever read. Partially because one of my relatives spent most of her retirement researching my family’s history and she researched that my family was one of the Danes that conquered northern England at this time, and I have ploughed through the first four in the series. So the excitement to read it was certainly high and I couldn’t wait for the paperback release in May. The Burning Land did not disappoint either – another fantastic addition to a great series of books by the prolific Cornwall. Uhtred’s story continues to weave its way across the turbulent early history of the land that would be England in its own special way. Uhtred is a much different man than the one from the first few novels. Now, as an adulthood, he is a shrewd calculated leader that commands Alfred’s war efforts against the Danes. As a character it has been a joy to see him grow – he is no longer reckless, or as reckless as he used to be, and his strategic moves involve a lot more thinking, planning and stealth. That’s fun to read, meaning that there is more to the action side of things in these books than merely a crash, bam, stab and slash Uhtred’s earlier fights where he used little-to-no finesse and deception.

Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed The Burning Land. Alfred of Wessex had two goals in life – the Christianisation of England and the unification of the petty English kingdoms1 under one king in a land free of pagans and Danes. That story was firmly continued in this novel as the Saxons went on the offensive against two huge Danish armies, once again destroying their power bases in the south and staving off any possibility of defeat. As a read, this is superb, and follows the (admittedly somewhat standard) Cornwell style of a cracking action-adventure tale with strong characters and story, ferocious enemies, newfound love and loss. The action is well told and helps to complete the tale of England’s oft forgotten past (why do people think English history begins in 1066?) by painting the picture of two of the most important battles in the Saxon-Danish war. But it’s also enjoyable for the evolution of Uhtred’s own story and his quest to capture the lands that belong to him by birth, and I think readers of the series will find that particularly enjoyable. As I have said before, I heartily recommend this series for anyone a fan of Cornwell, action-adventure and war-based historical fiction, pre-Norman English history and the Vikings. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

And so the wait for book six begins …

8.5/10.

1 these were Wessex (England’s south and south-west), Mercia (England’s midlands, west and London), East Anglia (England’s east) and Northumbria (the north to Scotland). Originally, Wessex (which eventually absorbed Sussex and Essex) was the land of Saxons, while Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria comprised of Angles and Jutes that joined the Saxons during the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain centuries before. At the time of The Burning Land Wessex was the only wholly Saxon kingdom, Mercia was divided by the Danes and Saxons and under Alfred’s control, while East Anglia and Northumbria were firmly Danish territories. The modern town of York evolved from the Danish Jorvik.

“A Clash of Kings,” by George R.R. Martin

15 Apr

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin (708p)

A Clash of Kings is the second novel in American author George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Published in 1998 it continues the story from the previous novel A Game of Thrones, telling three roughly connected stories from the viewpoint of several main characters. The first story is told by Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess of the overthrown king living in the mysterious eastern land as the queen of a nomadic tribe. The second story is told by Jon Snow, bastard son of the late Eddard Stark, and the wall that protects the lands of Westeros from the evil that lurks beyond. The third story is the main story told by the rest of the character viewpoints, and concerns the civil war between the House of Stark and Lannister following the death of the king’s right-hand man, Eddard Stark, and the King himself. This story is told by Catelyn Stark, widow of Eddard; Sansa, Arya and Bran, their children; Tyrion Lannister, brother of the ambitious queen Cersei, son of the most powerful lord in the realm and the new Hand of the King; Theon Greyjoy, former ward of Eddard Stark and enemy of the Starks; and Ser Davos Seaworth, a smuggler turned knight in the service of King Stannis, the old king’s brother.

In the east, Daenerys Targaryen strikes east across the forbidding red waste, accompanied by the knight Jorah Mormont, her few loyal followers, and three newborn dragons. Some of Daenerys’ followers scout the surrounding region and find a safe route to the great trading city of Qarth. Daenerys is the wonder of the city for her dragons, but her attempts to secure help for claiming the throne of Westeros do not succeed. She seeks an alliance with the powerful warlocks of Qarth, but in their House of the Undying she is shown many confusing images and her life is threatened. Daenerys’ dragon Drogon burns down the House of the Undying, sparking the enmity of the Qartheen and convincing Daenerys to leave the city. An assassination attempt is carried out on Daenerys in the city’s harbor, but it is thwarted by the arrival of two strangers, a fat warrior named Strong Belwas and his squire, an aged warrior named Arstan Whitebeard. They are agents of Daenerys’s ally Illyrio Mopatis, come to take Daenerys back to Pentos, and Daenerys agrees to accompany them.

On the wall in the far north, The Night’s Watch advances northwards from the Wall into the region known as the Haunted Forest. They stop at Craster’s Keep, where a wildling man named Craster serves as an informant for the Watch. The Watch continues north to a strong defensive position known as the Fist of the First Men, which used to be a fortress many thousands of years ago. Concerned about the whereabouts and activities of the King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont sends Jon Snow and Qhorin Halfhand on an advanced reconnaissance of the Skirling Pass. In the pass, Snow and Halfhand discover that there is much wildling activity in the mountains and they find themselves being hunted by several wildling warriors. Facing certain defeat, Halfhand secretly commands Snow to become an oathbreaker in order to infiltrate the wildlings and learn their important secrets. As proof he has truly turned, the wildlings force Jon to fight Halfhand, whom he kills, with the aid of his direwolf Ghost, as Halfhand knew he would have to. He learns that Rayder is already advancing on the Wall with tens of thousands of fighters.

The civil war among the noble families of Stark, Lannister, and Baratheon becomes more complex when the Greyjoys enter the fight. Robb Stark’s attempts to secure an alliance with the Greyjoys are rebuffed and, instead, the Greyjoys launch a massive assault along the west coast of the North. At Winterfell, the Stark stronghold, Robb’s young brother Bran is in command; he finds two new friends when Jojen and Meera Reed arrive from Greywater Watch. They take an interest in his strange dreams. As the true blood heir to his brother’s throne, Stannis Baratheon declares himself King of Westeros, having been encouraged by Melisandre, a red priestess. Enraged that his younger brother Renly has also claimed the throne, Stannis chooses to besiege Renly’s castle, Storm’s End, to force Renly to march east and defend it. Catelyn Stark joins a parley between Renly and Stannis to discuss a possible Stark-Baratheon alliance against their mutual foe, the Lannisters. The parley ends in acrimony and Renly resolves to use his immeasurably vaster army to destroy Stannis in battle the next day. However, that very evening a mysterious shadow that seems to have the shape of Stannis kills him in his tent before the battle begins. Catelyn flees along with the only other witness to this murder, the warrior-maid Brienne of Tarth. Most of Renly’s supporters shift their loyalty to Stannis, but the Tyrells do not, and Storm’s End itself only falls when Melisandre magically gives birth to another shadow of Stannis to kill the castle’s defiant castellan.

At the bidding of his father to serve in his place, Tyrion Lannister arrives at King’s Landing, to act as Hand of the King, the closest adviser to the monarch. Whilst intriguing against his sister Cersei, widow of the late king and mother of King Joffrey, Tyrion improves the defenses of the city. Learning of Renly’s death, Tyrion sends the cunning schemer Littlefinger to negotiate with the Tyrells. Lord Mace Tyrell agrees to wed his daughter Margaery to Joffrey. Tyrion also arranges the marriage of Joffrey’s sister Princess Myrcella to Trystane Martell in exchange for the support of that family.

Theon Greyjoy, seeking glory and wishing to earn the respect of his father Balon Greyjoy who has come to mistrust him after 10 years as a ward of the Starks, makes a daring gamble and captures the Starks’ very own Winterfell (with a minimal garrison as the rest are off to rebuff a diversionary attack on Tohrren Square) using just 20 men, taking Bran and Rickon Stark captive. Theon’s sister Asha suggests he raze the castle and flee before Stark supporters reclaim it, but Theon refuses. Bran and Rickon disappear in the night, and Theon after a desperate but fruitless search, decided to set up a ruse by finding two similarly aged boys and having them murdered, beheaded and tarred and claiming to all that he had the two princes executed for treachery. An army of hundreds of Stark supporters eventually arrives to retake the castle. Just before the force prepares to retake the castle, a party of what the Stark supporters believe are allies appears, but these soldiers of House Bolton quickly turn on their fellows and drive them off with heavy losses. Theon eagerly opens the gates to his ‘allies’, only to have them turn on him and his small Greyjoy force. Winterfell is razed to the ground and the Boltons return to their seat at the Dreadfort. Bran and Rickon emerge from hiding. It is agreed that at this point the most prudent course is to separate the two brothers, who are next in line of succession after their brother Robb. A castle servant, Osha, agrees to take Rickon to safety, while Bran, accompanied by Meera and Jojen decide to travel north to the Wall.

Robb Stark leads his army into the Westerlands and wins several victories against the Lannisters in their home territory. Tywin Lannister reluctantly advances against him, but his attempt to reach Robb is rebuffed, and upon receiving news that King’s Landing is threatened, his army rapidly marches south to join their new allies, the Tyrells.

Arya Stark, posing as a boy named Arry to protect her identity as a wanted daughter of Stark, travels north along with new recruits for the Night’s Watch. They are attacked and taken prisoner by Lannister soldiers, who take their captives to Lannister-held Harrenhal, where Arya becomes a servant. Her ruse of being a boy lost, Arya is still believed to be a mere peasant girl. Jaqen H’ghar, who had been a captive member of the Night Watch party, repays Arya, who had previously saved his life, by pledging to kill three men at her request. After naming and receiving the murder of her first two men, Arya cunningly requests the third name as Jaqen H’ghar himself. In exchange for releasing him from this promise to eliminate himself, Arya enlists him in a bold plot to release a recently captured contingent of Stark supporters. The prisoners are freed, and in the ensuing bedlam, they quickly arm and take over Harrenhal. Before leaving, Jaqen H’ghar gives Arya a strange coin and a mysterious phrase Valar Morghulis, which she should use if she ever wishes to seek him out. The lord of House Bolton, Roose Bolton soon arrives to accept Harrenhal for the host loyal to House Stark. Arya, who despite herself and her ruse of being a mere servant girl, is whispered of as being the one who was instrumental in helping wrest Harrenhal from the Lannisters. Lord Bolton takes Arya as his page, but she soon escapes with some of the other Night’s Watch recruits that she had befriended.

Stannis Baratheon’s army reaches King’s Landing and a combined assault is launched by both land and sea. Under Tyrion’s command, this force is thrown back by cunning use of “wildfire”, a napalm-like concoction, to set fire to the river and raising a chain across it to prevent Stannis’ fleet from retreating, essentially trapping them in the boiling bay. Tyrion is seriously injured during the battle as a result of a treacherous attack by Mandon Moore, one of Joffrey’s bodyguards. Stannis barely manages to escape with only a few thousand soldiers and a few ships after Tywin Lannister and the Tyrells catch them on the flank. The story continues in A Storm of Swords.

As I said in the previous review in this series, it is truly epic. The scope, size and depth of this novel and series are difficult to summarise. There are so many characters and so many little things that happen it would be impossible for me to put it all in one review. It’s why I gave up on recounting it myself and just copied it from Wikipedia – forgive me. It is all one story, though, and A Clash of Kings continues on where the previous novel left off. Martin’s style of writing does not do that annoying thing where more questions are asked than ever answered – like on Lost, for instance – and the loose ends from the first novel are answered in its sequel. For example, we learn why Jon Aryn was murdered and how, and we learn what makes the lands beyond the wall so dangerous and evil, and we learn the fates of others. It is interesting to see how it plays out and moves forward, and I found A Clash of Kings engrossing in this respect.

It helps that I like this sort of thing. But while the novel is epic in scope with so much to take in, it is very readable and not difficult to grasp. If you’re paying attention you won’t miss anything which is always a good thing. I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in fantasy novels, novels of war and political intrigue, or to anyone who just wants to check out a great series and have a good read. But do read A Game of Thrones first – you have to.

9/10.

“A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex,” by Chris Jericho

4 Mar

“A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex,” by Chris Jericho (412p)

A Lion’s Tale is the autobiography of WWE wrestler and rock musician Chris Jericho (real name Chris Irvine). A Lion’s Tale tells Jericho’s life story from his earliest days growing up Winnipeg, Canada through the first half of his career in professional wrestling, traveling around the world, until his debut with the (then) World Wrestling Federation (Entertainment) in 1999. Jericho also happens to be my favourite wrestler.

One of the first things Jericho establishes is why he loved wrestling – his grandmother. He grew up in an athletic family in Winnipeg, Canada – Jericho’s father is NHL hockey legend Ted Irvine – and naturally gravitated toward show business. Growing up, Jericho was always enamoured by films, comics, rock music and wrestling. He would watch the American Wrestling Association promotion on television and attend events at the Winnipeg Arena when the AWA would come to town. Later, when the AWA began to decline, Jericho began following the World Wrestling Federation as Vince McMahon was launching his takeover of regional territorial promotions throughout North America in the 1980s. When the WWF came to Winnipeg Jericho would go to all the shows, practically stalk the wrestlers at the hotel looking to get autographs and meet the stars of the WWF. At school he and his friends formed their own backyard wrestling group and performed matches at their high school. Jericho had set his sights on becoming a professional wrestler at the age of 17 and, when turning 19, he left home and went to Calgary to train with the famous Hart Brothers in their wrestling camp.

Wrestling training is notoriously brutal and Jericho doesn’t spare the details on the difficulties he faced. But he graduated (along with future star Lance Storm) and soon found himself wrestling in small regional shows in Canada, scratching out a simple living. He soon finds himself making his mark in Mexico as Corazón de León (Lionheart), winning championships, learning the ropes of the business and making lifelong friendships. He moved around the world and went to Germany for awhile, until landing his first real big paying wrestling gig in Japan with the Wrestle Association R company while also spending some time in the United States wrestling for Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling. The stories of independent wrestlers are legendary, and Jericho happily tells of some of the “colourful” moments he saw in the US and in Japan, where he was becoming a big star in WAR’s junior heavyweight division. Most of his in-ring ability and techniques he learns there are the things we see today and it’s fascinating reading about the experiences in Japan.

The last part of the book deals with Jericho’s break in the United States. Jericho, through his connections in the late Chris Benoit and late Eddie Guerrero, debuted in the up and coming Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion based out of Philadelphia in 1996. He remained there through 1996, touring in Japan as well. Jericho remained in ECW until the summer of 1996 when he was signed by World Championship Wrestling, soon to become the number one wrestling promotion in the United States. He soon finds the promised land of the big time not to be what he thought it would be, and Jericho talks at length about all the problems he faced in WCW.

It makes for pretty fascinating reading if you have an interest in pro-wrestling to hear about the scattered and confusing way WCW was run, with multiple doing the same job and nobody seemingly knowing what the other was doing. Jericho’s time in WCW was blighted by this as he spent months doing nothing in the company until his one big run. There, Jericho developed the character he would later use so successfully in the WWF – the abrasive, cocky, whiny and cowardly bad guy who mocked everyone with witty and original insults and plays on their names – and tells the story of how he came up with some of the funniest and most original segments to ever air in wrestling as he feuded with Dean Malenko.

But Jericho felt himself stifled by the atmosphere at WCW and never able to progress in a company that was so dogged by internal politics and backstabbing. With the massive salaries being paid out to the likes of Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Randy Savage and Sting Jericho knew he was never really going to be able to make it to the top there. So, he took it upon himself to make a move to the World Wrestling Federation and meeting with Vince McMahon. In late 1998 he signed with the WWF and debuted later in the year with one of the most memorable debuts in wrestling history. The Y2J Problem had arrived in the WWF and A Lion’s Tale ends with Jericho’s famous debut.

I probably should have prefaced this review by saying that, yes, I am a wrestling fan and still very much a child when it comes to this sort of thing. Jericho is my favourite wrestler so naturally I enjoyed his autobiography immensely. My recommendation below is hardly without bias. But the book actually is brilliant and very fun to read. It’s told in a carefree, relaxed and entertaining style. Jericho writes it in a way so it doesn’t come across as “and on August 5 1995 I went and did this …” like some people do with their autobiographies. Rather, he casually moves from place to place and moments in his career by telling (mostly humorous) stories about the people he met across his career, in particular and mentioning the unique and crazy side of the wrestling business. If you’re like me and find this sort of thing interesting anyway, it makes for natural entertainment and a great read.

I suppose this is a difficult book to recommend to most people. It’s probably only going to ever be read by wrestling fans, but all the same it is a great autobiography. Jericho is a natural writer and I can’t say I have any complaints about it. As far as entertainment and ease of read goes, it’s a true success.

8/10.