26 November 2011

Review - Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz)

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
Published by Gollancz
Paperback - 400 pages
Published January 2011
Personal copy of book

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (and as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. 
 Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden . . . and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair. 
The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying. 


This bit has been said before, so I'll get it out of the way. Ben Aaronovitch's rendition of London as something supernatural is in a similar vein to Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. If the idea of the city of London having a paranormal underbelly excites you, there is a good stock of material for you to whet your appetite. There, now it's been said, I can talk about Rivers of London on its own merits.

What strikes me most about Aaronovitch's version of the city is that, whilst it is underpinned by supernatural forces and magic, there is a degree of logical and rational explanation to how it works. An example of this is having Sir Issac Newton as the patron of wizards in London; the juxtaposition of the logical and the preternatural makes for a far more believable world.

This idea is embodied in Peter Grant, who questions the magical side of things at every turn. He is not content in simply going "I'm a wizard? That's cool, let's make magic happen". Instead, he experiment with the limitations of magic and the boundary with science. Grant takes a very British "Keep calm and carry on" attitude in dealing with the various gods, monsters and ghosts of the city of London, which keeps things rooted in the here-and-now. The supporting cast of the story are a good mix of the cosmopolitan make up of the city, and add both depth and charm to the novel.

The pacing of the novel was very good, combining police procedural with muder-mystery and standard "new wizard" learning scenes. I really enjoyed the slower scenes where Grant is learning the basics of his magical ability, though they verged on the side of being info-dumpy

The downside to Rivers of London is that the plot threads didn't tie up as nicely as I'd have liked, and the sub-plot seemed so disparate from the main plot that it seemed unnecessary. There was no real interconnection between plot strands, which for the most part made for two separate stories within the same book.

In short, Rivers of London is a rich, immersive read that will have you hankering for more mystical goings on from a city full to bursting with folklore and mythology. Whereas Gaiman and Mieville push the boundaries of the fantastic, Aaronovitch's London is far more closer to reality. An excellent read for fans of contemporary fantasy.

20 November 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [video game review]

This is likely to be one of the most hyped games of the past few years. After the success of Oblivion a few years back, fanboys have been biting at the bit for a follow-up. With the wait finally over, does Skyrim have what it takes to win over the fantasy crowd? Dear, sweet baby dragons, it does.

As with my previous video game reviews, I won't be looking at graphics or gameplay dynamics, but rather my focus is on the plot, characters and atmosphere, and the immersive experience as a whole.

First of all, Skyrim is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly big it is. The cities, forts, caves, random farms and bandit camps have been created with such detail that you can easily spend a week's worth of gameplay without ever even touching the main plot (as I am currently doing). Every person you speak to and every book and note that you find gives you a more expansive view of the world. Missing a seemingly useless piece of dialogue from a drunk in a tavern might mean you lose out on an enchanted weapon buried beneath a beautiful landscape on the other side of the world. That kind of depth makes you want to explore every nook and cranny as much as possible rather than just plow ahead with the plot.

This detail extends beyond the confines of your character and their immediate surroundings. Racial tensions, old grudges and relationship troubles abound in every place you visit. Each serves to enrich the world and give you a better understanding of the cultures within it.

My character of choice was a leonine mercenary assassin who is slowly becoming corrupted by the Thieves' Guild. The level of customization and freedom of play style is astounding. Should the whim take me, I could change my style to a conjurer who doesn't lift a finger in a fight but summons/hypnotizes others to do things for him. Skyrim's scope allows for a player to create their own story other than the 'Dragonborn' plot of the main quest. Depending on how you interact with others, certain quests will be made available to you or revoked as you make choices that shape your character. In Skyrim, you can ask yourself "how would my character act in this situation?" and be able to do just that.

If you're looking for a quick play of something action-y that you can finish in a few hours, Skyrim is not it. If you want a massive, open-ended world where you can go anywhere and do pretty much as you please, then I highly recommend it. From a writer's perspective, Skyrim is a great opportunity or you to get inside your character's heads by recreating them in the game and seeing how they act and react to situations. If you are a fantasy fan, you need this game.

13 November 2011

Review - Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett (Corgi)

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett
Published by Corgi
Paperback - 432 pages
Published November 1999
Borrowed Copy

Mightily Oats has not picked a good time to be a priest. He thought he'd come to the mountain kingdom of Lancre for a simple little religious ceremony. Now he's caught up in a war between vampires and witches, and he's not sure there is a right side.
There're the witches – young Agnes, who is really in two minds about everything, Magrat, who is trying to combine witchcraft and nappies, Nanny Ogg, who is far too knowing... and Granny Weatherwax, who is big trouble.
And the vampires are intelligent – not easily got rid of with a garlic enema or by going to the window, grasping the curtains and saying, "I don't know about you, but isn't it a bit stuffy in here?"
They've got style and fancy waistcoats. They're out of the casket and want a bite of the future.
Mightily Oats knows he has a prayer, but wishes he had an axe. 

 One of the things I love most about reading Pratchett is that it doesn't matter what reading mood I'm in, or what kind of literary funk I've gotten myself into, I know that I can pick up a Discworld novel and have a damn good time with it. This is true for Carpe Jugulum, the twenty-third novel in the series.

Pratchett satirizes the vampire mythos and the desire for people to break away from tradition (often with disastrous results) in the form of the Magpyr family - a group of 'modern' vampires who aren't content with just nibbling on the odd throat here and there, but choose to get involved and interfere with people. This doesn't end well, as you can imagine.

Although the Witches novels are my least favourite sub-series of the Discworld, I thought that they really held their own in Carpe Jugulum. He plays on the running theme of 'the maiden, the mother and the crone' in witch archetypes to cause conflict within the coven and the introduction of Agnes Nitt (and her alter-ego Perdita) as a fully fledged witch to upset the dynamic. I found Agnes herself to be a little bland as a character, and she didn't add too much to the story. Granny Weatherwax's stubbornness, however, is as charming as it is frustrating, and had me giggling for a good while.

There seemed to be a little too much going on in Carpe Jugulum, and the story would have benefited from having less characters. In particular, the Nac Mac Feegle (think angry, Scottish smurfs) were excellent for the times they were around, but failed to do much of substance.

That aside, Pratchett still brings the funnies, particularly through the grumbling, put-upon form of Igor, the Magpyr's servant. His sarcastic comments and cynical attitude to the 'modern' vampire is much like my own reactions to the Twilight phenomenon, so there's definite common ground there. Also, Carpe Jugulum is darker and more grim than other Discworld novels, dealing with issues of complacency in the face of tyranny and people being treated as objects. Pratchett still manages to put these messages in whilst having you laugh wildly to yourself.

Carpe Jugulum is an excellent parody of (and a slightly prophetic view) of the changing nature of the vampire myth and packs it full of his humour. Whilst it isn't the best that Pratchett has to offer, it's certainly one that you can sink your teeth into.

2 November 2011

A bit of encouragement - Insecure Writer's Support Group

Since many of you are taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, I figured I'd offer up some encouragement this month to those who may be feeling the insecurities of writing already.

I applaud you all for taking the plunge and the monumental effort of writing a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. I don't care who you are, that is lightning (bonus points to whoever knows where that line is from).

This week I had a conversation about how artists sometimes get an invisible 'over the shoulder critic' that silently judges everything they do and makes them insecure. I think as writers we have the internal editor that takes every word as we write it and screams "Make it better!" This is the mentality you need to step out of if you are to compete in and complete NaNoWriMo. I know how difficult it can be to silence our internal editors, but quantity is infinitely better than quality in this case.

NaNoWriMo isn't about creating your magnum opus in one fell swoop. It doesn't matter if you write a 50,000 word shopping list; if you hit the word count, you win. You can go back later (read: a few months after recovering from the craziness you've just endured) to edit and let your inner critic roam free all over your work. For now, get those words down, and forget the plot holes, inconsistencies and general tomfoolery that accompanies a very rough pre-first draft.

Your protagonist has inexplicably undergone a sex change half-way through the story? Keep it.
The name of the town your characters are in keeps changing? Don't change it.
The plot suddenly takes a heave and has everyone looking for an evil chicken? (for shame, Goodkind). Crop it after NaNo.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is "keep writing!". It's never more true than during NaNo. Don't you dare hit that backspace key.


In other news, I'm taking part in Movember, an annual charity event that raises money in aid of fighting prostate cancer. I've shaved off my beard (after a decade of growth and care) and I'm growing a moustache for the duration of November. For those who are so inclines, please donate whatever you can and help me out. It's much appreciated! You can offer donations and support at my MoBro page: http://mobro.co/jamiegibbs. I'll also be posting a daily update of my moustache progress on my sidebar - you can click the picture to get to the page too.