A Little Hatred (The Age of Madness #1) by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review

Originally posted over at Booknest.eu.

Pictured here is my own copy. So pretty @_@

Published by: Gollancz.
Genre: (Dark) Fantasy
Pages: 486
Format: Hardback
Purchased the Exclusive Edition from Waterstones.

The world we readers knew from the First Law Trilogy has changed. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Joe Abercrombie’s standalone novels in the world, Best Served ColdThe Heroes, and Red Country. As the world’s timeline has progressed, we find ourselves amidst an Industrial Revolution much like the one the UK went through in the 1800s, and with it, some of the worst excesses of early capitalist society. 14-hour working days, scant payment for dangerous, life-draining factory labour, child labour, air and water pollution. All this under one common denominator, that of Progress with a capital ‘P’, and see how it encloses all that suffering within itself?

But rest assured, there’s a lot more than this going on. Abercrombie skirted away from the Union after the excellent Last Argument of Kings. We caught glimpses, here and there, of changes, particularly in the excellent Red Country, but the streets of Adua were left closed to us for over a decade until September 2019 rolled along. To date, I think this is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered from a UK-based bookstore; goes to show you my excitement for it.

Why the hell did it take me so long to get to it?!*

A Little Hatred makes the beginning of Abercrombie’s first trilogy seem sluggish by comparison; from the first, the personalities of each Point-of-View character shine through. No handholding here, no soft introduction to the world and characters. Tragedies, both personal and socio-political see a new generation of characters challenged from the get-go.

The theatres of operations, as it were, are centered around the latest external conflict with the North and the internal tension within the Union itself. In the North, Black Calder’s bloodthirsty son is on the offensive against the Union’s Protectorate ran by old favourite Dogman; his daughter, Rikke, is in a whole lot of shit for more than one reason – to start with, she’s got the magical Long Eye, which gives her glimpses of the future while suffering bouts of agonizing epilepsy. Matching wits with the Wolf of the North is Leo dan Brock, the soon-to-be Lord Governor of Angland, who is at once likable and a reckless idiot. Don’t worry, I spoil nothing, you pick that vibe up on the very first page he’s on.

The Union is a different story altogether, a den of intrigue, full of serpents, the biggest ones some of our main characters, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel – everything’s changed, everything’s the same, and you can’t help but love it to death. Also in the Union but removed, at first, from the heart of intrigue and conflict either by drunken uselessness and privilege or by post-traumatic stress disorder are Prince Orso and former farmer-turned-soldier Broad, a family man excellent at violence and little else. Orso, despite being one of the most disliked men in the Union – and considered spineless by virtually everyone – is a decent human being, though it takes him a little while to realize it. Between you and me, I’m not sure it’ll last

Fan-favourites from days gone by come back, as well – His Eminence, Sand dan Glokta the most prominent among them, his iron grip over the Union seemingly slipping due to the pressure of internal and external forces alike. Finree dan Brock also plays the role of governor and general of Angland’s armies, as does a brittle, severely damaged Dogman.

More than one chapter makes for a masterclass in the writer’s craft. CHAPTER NAME puts two of the most cutthroat characters in the novel, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel face to face; it’s a moment of reflection for both as they look in a mirror, each seeing the other as the opposite of what they are while unconscious of how similar they view the world. Here’s Savine reflecting on the woman in front of her:

It was not mockery, exactly. They simply both knew that Teufel had seen things, suffered things, overcome things that Savine would never have to. Would never dare to. She needed no wigs or powder to hide behind. She sat safe in the certainty that she was carved from fire-toughened wood, and could break Savine in half with those veined coal miner’s hands if she pleased.

A page and a half later, Vick observes, “It wasn’t mockery, exactly. They just both knew that savine had more manners, money and beauty in one quim hair than Vick could’ve dug from her whole acquaintance. She sat safe on invisible cushions of power and privilege, knowing she could buy and sell Vick on a whim.” Funny how two of the most ruthless characters Abercrombie has written have so much in common without either realizing it – the world I look forward to seeing them share the page again as by the end of A Little Hatred at least one of them has undergone a metamorphosis the kind you’ll have to read to believe. 

And of course, it wouldn’t be Abercrombie if he didn’t have a scene or two full of hopping into the heads of minor characters. I love this contrivance because it’s an excellent way to sketch out significant events from points of view other than those already established. Abercrombie does more in forcing me to care about a minor character with two pages than some authors do with entire books. If that isn’t proof of his skill, I don’t know wot is!

Beyond the glorious escapism, A Little Hatred examines themes relevant to the socio-political environment we all live in. The Gurkish Empire, the ‘bad guy’ of the First Law trilogy, has suffered through political collapse; as a result, the Union is struggling with wave after wave of refugees; late in the novel, one character tells another:

‘Lot of brown faces around,’ he said, frowning.
‘Troubles in the South. Refugees are pouring across the Circle Sea, seeking new lives.’
‘Fought a war against the Gurkish thirty years ago, didn’t we? You sure they can be trusted?’
‘Some can and some can’t, I would’ve thought. Just like Northmen. Just like anyone. And they’re not all from Gurkland…Dozens of languages. Dozens of cultures. And they’ve chosen to come here. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?’
‘If you say so.’ *Redacted* knew nothing about those places except that he didn’t want the Union to become one of them. He took no pride in the watering down of his homeland’s character. … ‘Just…hardly feels like the Union’s the Union anymore.’
‘Surely the great strength of the Union has always been its variety. That’s why they call it a Union. 

Bit of a scathing critique, that, if you think about it. And you will think about it, unlike the character whose name I’ve redacted. It’s this kind of social commentary that makes for an excellent argument on the merits of fantasy in exposing the faults of our own world. Escapism, but not just.

Examined also is the “nothing can stand before profit” mentality of the hyper-rich, most directly through the character of Savine dan Glokta, who suffers from the same condition of her father in the previous trilogy, in that she does have internal morals and can recognize her actions as wrong but does not allow them to stand in her way. That’s what made Sand the most memorable character in the First Law trilogy and it is what makes me so fascinated with Savine.

Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred is a revelation, and if you haven’t yet read it, it’s well past time that you do. This is a modern masterwork; my score for it is an unapologetic 10/10. I cannot wait to see the challenges and changes all these characters, and their supporting casts, will go through over the next two novels as The Age of Madness shambles onwards. The themes I illustrated are but a handful of the ones you can find in this opening act and I encourage you to read with care, conscious of this adult, intelligent novel. It has plenty to say, long as you are willing to listen.

*If you must know, I moved from one apartment to another, then bode my time until I had the chance to fully submerse myself in this work. I do not regret it, not even a little bit.

Only autographed book I own!

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Book Review

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism
Pages: 96
Format: ebook
Purchased Copy: from Amazon
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella (2016)

Calvin Park spoke about this one over at one of the recent episodes of his Under a Pile of Books podcast; and since I’ve been trying to finish the last few squares for r/fantasy’s yearly bingo challenge, a book on the topic of afrofuturism was most welcome.

Sometimes, everything about a story is excellent – the voice, the worldbuilding, the protagonist – with the exception of one huge, glaring error, a detail overlooked in such a low-key manner that you might not even notice it at first. Then, once you’ve put Binti away, you pause, take a breath and consider.

That is when the final third of this 90 or so pages long novella falls apart.

But before I touch on this spoiler-heavy section of the review, allow me to offer credit where credit is due. Nnedi Okorafor’s respect for the culture of Binti’s people (which draws inspiration from the Himba people of Namibia) along with its infusion with mathematical knowledge make for a fascinating vision of a society both new and steeped in tradition. The way ideas such as mathematical harmony and “ancestral magic” as some call what Binti does, are presented, enrichens the world, and the internal conflict Binti goes through – between following into the footsteps of her ancestors and going after her own desires – plays out in an interesting way.

It’s an engaging read, which I finished in a little over an hour, having enjoyed many of the ideas within – some of them core tenets of science fiction.

Now, onto the SPOILER-filled part of my review, which illuminates the extent of the problem with Binti.

The Meduse, an alien species that counts itself as one of the enemies of the humans and has long warred with them, assaults a ship traveling towards Oomza University. On this ship is Binti, one of the dozens or even hundreds of students on their way to Oomza Uni. Out of all of them, only Binti and the ship pilot survive. Everyone else is slaughtered in seconds, all at once. Binti eventually manages to talk the Meduse out of their attack on Oomza Uni and comes to represent the aliens before the directorial council of the university. Together, they all come to an agreement that sees the stinger the Meduse came to Oomza Uni to reclaim returned to its rightful owner, and everything concludes with a peaceful resolution and the seeds of friendship planted between two old enemies.

So what’s the problem? Let’s look to the Meduse, and what they do here.

The following notion is a turning moment in Binti’s personal perception of the aliens: “Now I could never go back. The Meduse. The Meduse are not what we humans think. They are truth. They are clarity. They are decisive. There are sharp lines and edges. They understand honor and dishonor. I had to earn their honor and the only way to do that was by dying a second time.” That said, to ignore the fact that the Meduse killed a ship full of prospective students is ludicrous – and this is just what happens, when at the end of the novella, during negotiations, the professors of Oomza University agree to return the stinger of the Meduse leader on whose order the massacre is perpetrated; not only that, they demand one of the Meduse come study at the university. What of the slaughtered students? It’s as if they are forgotten by everyone involved – their deaths forgotten, too, by Okorafor, judging by the speedy resolution she offers.

Based on this alone, Binti, much as I enjoyed most of it, shouldn’t have won a Nebula award. This is a glaring mistake and though I’m very interested in the works of Nnedi Okorafor, to praise her work for such naivete goes against the spirit of science fiction. Look at Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” a SF Masterpiece which treats ; look at the conflict between terrans and the people of the Forest, and how it ends. When one side slaughters dozens or hundreds, there can be peace…but the kind of harmony Okorafor’s characters find after the shortest negotiations is an impossibility, which overlooks so much of the nature of humanity. Not the better part, perhaps – but a part of who we are, nonetheless. Voices should be crying out for justice and for vengeance; there should be words of righteous indignation spoken. But there are none – instead, there is harmony.

It is not earned. Binti’s growth and individual understanding of the Meduse doesn’t wash away the weight of what they have done. The stolen stinger, as fine a reason as it is to the culture of the Meduse for the perpetration of slaughter and the planning of a yet more grand massacre, is no excuse most anyone would accept. And that…that’s a serious overlook on the part of Okorafor, all the more shocking for the brilliant way in which she captures the culture of Binti’s people, and the work she does on the Meduse.

My score for this one is, regretfully, a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I keep returning to Murakami’s works, captivated by the prism through which he sees the world. His protagonists are a consistent type – alienated men, most often in their thirties. Something is missing in the lives they live, often to do with some personal tragedy in their late teenage years – in Norwegian Wood, it was the death of the protagonist’s best friend; in here, it is the fact that Tsukuru Tazaki is expelled from his group of friends soon after he graduates highschool and moves to study in Tokyo.

Tsukuru interested me – he sees himself as an empty container, a man with hardly any personality; that’s where the adjective in the title, “colorless” comes in. This is a lonely man, friendless, single, without kids. He hasn’t had a close confidant since university, when he befriended a younger man by the name of Haida…who is but one of the novel’s many mysteries without answer.

Sure, he’s had a few girlfriends but Tsukuru never truly connected with any of them – and nor did they connect with him. This changes when he meets Sara, a woman two years older than he, who penetrates his exterior and helps him realise he needs to work through the issues hanging over his head ever since his expulsion from the group.

This is a novel about reconnecting with the past and letting go of that which leaves the deepest marks; it’s about learning to overcome the shackles of past trauma not for someone else but for yourself.

I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost lovers. Precious, wonderful connections, which meant the world to me but for one reason or another, came undone. Those most intimately close to us have the ability to wound us the deepest, to leave a mark that might never heal – unless we seek help. Unless we find it for ourselves, whatever the form. For Tsukuru, it’s reconnecting with his friends, asking them the one question he couldn’t, sixteen years ago – Why? For you and me… Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let the wounds fester and turn gangrenous.

And it is plenty more.

Tsukuru isn’t just a sum of his trauma or his past unhappiness – he’s also a creator, his name holding the meaning of “to build, to make, to create”. His work as a railway station engineer is important, it’s beneficial to society and most significantly, he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of doing. Murakami’s protagonists are far from one-note – they’re personalities, and Tsukuru, much as he does not see it, is one too.

My score for this one is 4/5 stars.

“Never let fear and stupid pride make you lose someone who’s precious to you.”

The audiobook for this one was narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens, who does an excellent job.

Month in Review: January 2020 at the Reliquary

Greetings, fabled followers, craven cultists, grimoire gnomes and blog butterflies! The first twelfth of 2020 is behind us and the eternal question must be asked: What the heck happened last month?

Here, at the Reliquary, not too much. Books were read, old posts revisited, humans hunted for spo–don’t know where that came from, to tell you right. Let’s see wot’s wot!

I read the best Fantasy Release of January 2020…

Even though I read none of the other releases of the month, I have to say, the Shadow Saint proved brilliant every step of the way. Hanrahan’s Black Iron Gods series has been a revelation, a celebration of the imagination, a wonderful journey into the dark and the macabre. Fascinating characters, deep lore, yet more impressive worldbuilding and truly one of the best character arcs I’ve come across in recent years. You owe it to yourself to read Gareth’s work. But if you’re still on the fence, you can take a glance at my review!

…And Caught up on one of the Finest Debuts of 2019!

Alix E. Harrow sure writes pretty. So pretty in fact that it’s easy to forget to come up with full sentences – The Ten Thousand Doors of January will leave you grasping for breath with the sheer beauty of its prose. It emulates a female bildungsroman; January’s ‘stream-of-consciousness’ offers a wonderful vessel to tell this most unusual story, with its great respect for words and stories and the Doors between worlds. Breathtaking.

My review awaits you here.

I Looked at Characters, and Found them Lacking, thanks to…

I am counting down the days – and books – until I have the chance to dig back into Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. A fascinating work, which does some very interesting things to the notion of character. I’ve spoken more about it here.

I Finished Catch-22!

With Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five behind me in 2019, I thought it was a good time to read the other great Post-WW2 anti-war classic, Catch-22. I have neither scored it, nor reviewed it yet but I was shook, you guys.I haven’t laughed at something this dark since Erikson and Abercrombie; the same sort of excellent gallows’ humour, mixed in with high stakes and a message at once fatalistic and hopeful.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”

I Finally Got some K. J. Parker Into My System with Prosper’s Demon!

And what remarkable style he has. An excellent novella, I highly recommend it.

What’s Next?

Good question! There’s some Star Wars nonsense at work, presently – I’ll be writing a review on the audiobook of Ahsoka, which is nothing short of a real fun space journey with one of the most lovable characters of the Star Wars universe!

I’m also considering whether to post the notes I take on my study of “The Theory of the Novel” by McKeon – a massive side-project I’m undertaking as part of my bachelor’s. Not necessarily the most interesting reading for people uninterested in the in-depth study of literature but there you have it.

I’ve also got to work on a bunch of SPFBO content for Booknest.eu! I’ll be posting my review of A Sea of Broken Glass over there in just a few days; after, I’ve got interviews to prepare for all the finalists willing to chat with me about their books!

There’s yet more to come!

The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

30 Years Before: Eye of the World Came Out

Moiraine Damodred by  Dan Dos Santos

I don’t remember the exact age I first read the Eye of the World, though I must have been pre-teen. I remember my dad having bought the first three – they just came out in Bulgarian for the very first time. I was going to the villa with my grandparents, and I had these three thick tomes with me; I had…maybe a week of downtime, likely over Spring vacation and Easter.

I devoured Eye of the World, The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn in three, maybe four days. It was love at first chapter, magical and binding, and to hell with it if these books did not become part of my DNA for the week I spent reading and rereading them. This is one of the foundational series of the fantasy genre and it deepend my love for worldbuilding, complex characters, geopolitics and veiled representations of Odin and Arthurian legends.

Thirty years, they’ve been out in the world. More than all the time I’ve spent on this Earth. Thirty years, and the Wheel of Time will soon be available for a whole new generation through a medium even some of the most hardcore fans of this fantasy epic didn’t believe it would ever be seen in.

Don’t screw this up, Amazon.

Me? I go back to these novels, sometimes — in audio format, in the original language they were written in. Every time the trip is familiar, and every time it is new…but it is always something to remember.

“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and we are only the thread of the Pattern.”

I’m still crushing on Moiraine Damodred, y’all.

Not my Father’s Son by Alan Cumming – Mini Book Review

I love listening to the autobiographies of my favourite actors and comedians. Kevin Hart, John Cleese, Felicia Day, Amanda Palmer, all have put out such engrossing, fascinating reads. I couldn’t get enough of them!

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite this cheery description, Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son is a considerably heavier book than some of the abovementioned authors’ works, though if you know Alan’s work and the flamboyant personality he puts forward into the world, you won’t be surprised by the generous helping of humour which follows or precedes each of Alan’s stories about his abusive monster of a father.

The recollections of these memories are interwoven with the events of Alan’s shot for the British series Who Do You Think You Are across a few months in 2010. For those who, like me, might be unfamiliar with these BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are digs into the family history of a famous Brit and reveals herefore-unknown secrets to the guest in question. It’s a fascinating experience for the star around which the episode is centered, as their reaction at finding out old family mysteries are caught on camera. This secondary story is about Alan’s grandfather, Tommy Darling, a soldier in WW2 who died under mysterious circumstances.

Despite some mind-blowing revelations along the way, what struck home with me is that Alan manages to extract important lessons from even the most negative experiences. He doesn’t allow the past to form him into a man as weak as his father; he uses it as fuel to grow and be better. To me, that’s what this book should’ve been and I’ll happily give it my recommendation to any fan of the biography genre.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with Haruki Murakami’s books over these last few months. Kafka on the Shore in May, Norwegian Wood in September and just this last week, What I Talk About when I talk About Running. The last is freshest in my mind but I’ll contain myself and instead turn to Norwegian Wood, the title inspired by the Beatles song of the same name. It also happens to be the work that really shot Haruki Murakami to fame first in Japan and later internationally.

Norwegian Wood is a love story and it’s about overcoming grief, and it’s about those first coming of age years after you leave home, quite uncertain about what comes next, the direction you’re supposed to take as the world begins to mold and pressure you in ways outside of your control. It’s easy to lose yourself — something that main character Watanabe manages at one point in this novel.

Let’s look at it as a love story first, shall we? It’s sweet and sexy and tragic enough that you might just tear up by the end of it. Bittersweet but hopeful – that’s how I’d describe it in three words, were I forced to do so.

As a side-note, I would ride on the bus, listening to the audiobook more than once, when a ridiculous, steamy sex scene started up. You know, these are the moments when you’re not quite certain whether you should be grinning or blushing or pressing ‘Pause’. Say one thing about that, say it was funny.

What about dealing with grief?

Toru Watanabe, the protagonist from whose PoV the novel is told, loses his best friend Kizuki. Kizuki kills himself on his 17th birthday and this marks Watanabe for life — as it would most of us. Another, Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, is as affected by his suicide as Watanabe; perhaps more. Years later, Naoko and Watanabe reconnect and fall for each other but Kizuki’s shadow never fully clears between the two. Unable to cope, Naoko eventually ends up in a sanatorium, doing her finest to piece herself back together.

Some of the characters are unforgettable. Maybe not their names – I forget names easy enough – but the personalities will stay with me. Nagasawa is Watanabe’s exact opposite — driven and ambitious, and far more cynical than our protagonist, Nagasawa is in many ways Toru’s foil. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the two become close friends…although Watanabe never allows Nagasawa into his heart the way he let Kizuki in.

I was partial to Midori, an older woman in the same sanatorium as Naoko. As Nagasawa is to Watanabe, Midori is a foil to Naoko — though burdened by her own demons (her story is perhaps the highlight of Norwegian Wood for me) Midori has strength, the presence of character necessary to survive and perhaps overcome all that placed her in the sanatorium. Midori’s a guitar player, a concert pianist and totally the coolest, yo! Very flirty, too, which gives rise to some hilarious exchanges between her, Watanabe and Naoko, who also happens to be her roommate and dear friend.

This isn’t the best Murakami book I’ve read, nor is it my favourite. I’d live these honours to Kafka on the Shore and Dance, Dance, Dance, respectively. But it has a certain appeal to those who know a little of loss and pain and love, and I am certain some of you will be well-served by reading it.

I straightened up and looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in the course of my life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.

The opening paragraph of Norwegian Wood.

My score for this novel is 4 stars. There’s plenty you can get out of it — but it’s not a book for everyone. Stay away if you can’t handle suicide and depression in your fiction – leave me a comment down below with your preferences, and I’ll point you to another one of Murakami’s novels, instead. If you’ve read any of his previous novels, there’s a chance this one’ll surprise you — it lacks many of the eery, magical realism and even surrealism that’s typical for most of his other works.

The audiobook narration by John Chancer was enjoyable – no complaints there, he distinguished between the characters and delivered an excellent performance.

The Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski – Book Review (Excerpt)

Hullo again! This weekend was nice and lazy and full of…actually, a lot of studying, one week into this new year of uni. I wanted to share my review of Sapkowski’s second Witcher novel, The Sword of Destiny before this first week of September is truly and forever gone!

The full review, as usual, you can find over at booknest.eu. Below, you’ll find the reviews of my two favourite stories in this latest anthology:

Eternal Flame

Hands down the funniest story of the lot. In a case of stolen identities, mimicked halflings and an economic boom, Geralt is so far out of his comfort zone, it’s ridiculous. He’s just an observer, a visitor in Novigrad, one of the biggest cities in the North. While reading this, I couldn’t help but think, time and again, Gods, it sure would suck to have your identity stolen by a doppler, to only see that doppler do better at all you’ve worked your life towards, in a matter of three days. And that’s much of what the plot is about. But in this case, it’s not about plot as much as interactions, dialogue and showing how being seen as an evil monster does not necessarily correspond to the reality of a creature’s nature.

Seeing Novigrad in written form for the first time was also pretty great, I won’t lie – I’d been looking forward to seeing how it would look outside of the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. If there’s anything I can say for sure about Eternal Flame, it’s that this is my favourite Witcher feel-good story; with its light mood, and a sense of humour that keeps on giving, this was a great place to switch gears after two emotionally heavy stories, and as a result, it worked out quite well.

Oh, and Dandelion is here. Starving artist and whatnot, wot, wot.   5/5

A Little Sacrifice

This is it. This is The Story. The one that affected me the most, one of the emotionally heaviest tales I’ve read in recent memory, a heart-tearing, gut-wrenching punch in the teeth that left me wiping away a single, manly tear from my eye.

It started off funny – but oh, Andrzej, this is the last time you bamboozle me, I can promise you that. The funny bits have to do with riffing on The Little Mermaid, with a duke and a mermaid obviously in love with one another but neither of them willing to compromise, to make a little sacrifice in order to be with the one they love. It’s all played for laughs until the duke refuses to pay Geralt on grounds of expecting results; results which Geralt has failed to deliver. Penniless, Geralt and Dandelion are forced to move on, despite their empty stomachs. As luck would have it, a rich villager runs across them and recognizes Dandelion and invites him to a wedding. The invitation is accepted, of course, and our Witcher is all too happy to tag along, if it’ll mean a belly filled with food and a night’s rest spent in-doors. In the wedding, the pair of travellers come across Essi.

A newly introduced character, the troubadour Essi, also known as Little Eye, is the catalyst of this story. Her relationship with Geralt is fascinating and not only this but it also kicks open the doors for the witcher to reflect on his relationship with the sorceress Yennefer. To say anymore would be to take away from this excellent story, which hit especially close to home.

This one also shows the depth of Dandelion’s character. Dandelion, to you lot that do not remember wot’s wot, is Geralt’s closest friend and frequent travel companion. This one is the first story I’d recommend to anyone who doubts that the Witcher might not be packing a heavy enough emotional punch. A full 10/10, 5/5, and so on and so forth.

The Bi-Weekly Mini Review-a-Thon! Legion, The Lady in the Lake, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Hello, everyone! I’ve read(listened to) one excellent book and a few deeply enjoyable ones, and it’s well past time for me to talk about them. And just in case you’re curious… Here’s the last pair of mini-reviews!

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

It’s hard to believe I haven’t read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz until now! Thank the gods for Audible.co.uk’s daily deals and Anne Hathaway’s inspiring reading of this classic children’s book. The Wonderful Wizard has so much heart, and Anne (I call her Anne now, that’s how close I feel to her after listening to this!) adds so much to the world and characters with her performance. The vocal range on her! Just look at this if you need a taste. I’m really glad to have come across this daily deal; another classic off my list, and one I’ll go back to whenever I can’t fall asleep — that’s how good Anne Hathaway’s narration is! This one is a definite 5/5, for the novel’s cultural importance, its quality as a children’s book and Anne’s performance!

Putin: Prisoner of Power

This is a podcast I got on Audible since I’m a member, and it was free and about Russian politics, which I’m ever fascinated with. Misha Glenny’s to blame for this one, and he goes on a trip down Kremlin lane to talk about the events surrounding Russian power-broker and oligarch Yeltsin which eventually placed Putin in power, the Russian president’s ability to learn from his mistakes in a shrewd, powerful way, and how Putin used one tragedy after another to fortify his position as hero and saviour to the Russian people, weathering political storms that would have seen most others in his place resign in disgrace. The people Glenny has gathered and spoken to include close functionaries of Putin’s, having served as parts of his team at one time or another, as well as several prominent American specialists on Russia, the most well-known of whom is President Clinton’s advisory on Russian relations. It’s a really solid, seven-episode podcast. 4/5

The Lady in the Lake (Philip Marlowe #4)

The original master of noir is a pleasure to return to. Raymond Chandler’s private investigator is impossible to dislike, even if this fourth novel in the series is less memorable than The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye. What I enjoyed about The Lady in the Lake the most is, it sets up a simple enough story, in which Marlowe begins to look for the missing wife of a rich LA businessman, comes across another woman’s body by accident, and everything just spirals out of hand.

Ray Porter’s narration is a solid 5/5 on its own, as always. He is Philip Marlowe to my mind, his is a signature performance that I’ll be coming back to time and again. The Lady in the Lake gets an overall 4/5 score from me.

Legion (Horus Heresy #7) by Dan Abnett

This one started off slow and then ramped up to a fascinating conflict. The stars of this Warhammer 40k novel are the members of the Alpha Legion and their primarch, Alpharius! This most secretive of all Astartes legions was fascinating to observe, as they led a bloody, secretive war that ended

The protagonist who made this novel as fun for me as it was is John Grammaticus, an immortal human recruited by the Cabal, an interplanetary council of xenos of all walks of life, whose ultimate goal is to stop or slow down the ascent of Chaos in the universe. The Cabal’s purpose was to manipulate Alpharius and his men to this purpose, and the conflict between them and the Alpha Legion played out to an unexpected end.

Great narration by David Timson. Good action, great plot twists and solid characters once again serve to prove that Dan Abnett is the unmistakable master of Warhammer 40k novels. My score for this one is 4/5.

Is it weird I listened to all of these on audiobook? Maybe; but the narrations of all these are well worth listening to! Thank you for joinining me today and I hope I’ve piqued your interest with at least one of these !