Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: Excalibur, by Bernard Cornwell

Just when you start leaning away from a storyline, you find yourself captured within it again. In Excalibur, Bernard Cornwell follows perhaps his most dreary - Enemy of God - with his most exciting work. I loved this book.

The master of historical adventure once again throws his reader straight into a complex system of political intrigue and glorious - but frightening - battles. There really isn't much more that I can say about Cromwell's style and evident skill, having written some four previous reviews of his books.

Nor can I compare again the similarity between heroes, the intricate characterisations, the utmost respect he afford women - especially "thinkers" - or that the impeccable research that allows him to describe past events so clearly and vividly. At this stage, it's best to focus solely on story.

Excalibur is one giant, 440-page climax. It's Return of the Jedi, but not crap. In fact, I enjoyed this book as much or more than any of the author's works since his superb Grail Quest series (which in fact rate amongst the best books I've ever read). To quickly end a tawdry analogy, where Enemy of God, much like Empire, was slower-paced and acted as scene-setter, this Excalibur starts quickly, accelerates further and ends with a final confrontation set within a greater skirmish.

Better still, none of the heroes inexplicably turn into chumps.

All the individual story lines are deftly woven together to form a Bayeux tapestry not of Hastings, but of Dumnonian politics in the sixth century. The novel of course ends with the Battle of Camlann, leading Arthur to sail into the fog accompanied by characters who would otherwise have made for frustrating loose ends, Guinevere and Galahad.

While refusing to wholeheartedly embrace magic - and therefore delve into the fantasy that Arthurian fiction usually occupies - Cornwell still utilises mystical characters Merlin and Nimue at key junctures, often accompanying each appearance with some sort of explanation for their spells. There's a symmetry in Nimue assembling an Army of the Damned and further circular resolution brought to Derfel's faith (and paternity), Mordred's Kingly "reign" and the romance of Guinevere and Arthur, thought so fractured at the preceding book's conclusion.

Even though so much occurs, there are still moments of peace and pace; the signs of a master craftsman. To draw even further on a Star Wars thread, what made the first movie so great was it's pacing: fast, but narrative and smooth. Empire had much the same feel at a slower, expository amble. Fiction, no matter what the genre, works best when it's paced well.

In retrospect it's this uneven pacing that made Enemy of God (even though it scored okaaay) a heavy read. The conclusion paced so as for maximal enjoyment and narrative pleasure. Conclusions always fall into two groups - those that satisfy, and those that don't. This one, without question, is a most wonderful closure. Basketballs.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Hemingway's Chair – Michael Palin

Michael Palin is more famous for his Monty Python exploits and latterly his adventurous travel documentaries that have drawn many in as he explored relatively ignored tourist destinations. But he does have another string to an incredibly large bow, he has a genuine knack for story telling.

Hemingway's Chair was written and published in the early to mid 1990s when Britain (and in fact much of the western world) began to make tough decisions to sell off to private interests government enterprise. Although in the end much of the change was inevitable, the decisions did leave scars as many perceived that what used to be the pillars of British society were being knocked down.

No 'pillar' destruction potentially tugged more at the heart strings of communities than the sale of the local post office, and around this is where, in the fictional East Anglian town of Theston, Palin takes up his story. An assistant Post Office Manager in Martin Sproule finds his dreams of making the full step up to Manager of Theston's post office are taken away by the privateers. Martin however does not go down without a fight, his strength drawn from his encyclopaedic knowledge of the works of and man himself in Ernest Hemingway.

The book is an engaging as well as light hearted story that is in no way predictable. The characters are mad to begin with, and just keep getting madder. Martin idolises his 'Papa' (Hemingway) and as his life unravels further he is drawn into living a life parallel to the tragic authors. The ending comes suddenly, and with no wrapping up of perceived loose ends that takes strength as a reader to accept as reasonable.

Palin is a devotee himself of Hemingway's work. One of his travel series took him to the corners of the earth that the author inhabited during his life. The knowledge that he has of the man through research and having read his work no doubt comes through the story subtly, however lives well below the perception of someone like myself who has no familiarity with Hemingway.

Despite my own limitations it is an entertaining read, and if you are knowledgeable on Hemingway it may be even more so. Tennis Balls.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: Enemy of God, by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is nothing if not formulaic.  His historical novels are set around major turning points in English military history, his heroes enlightened and their heroines broken free of the servitude inherent in Dark Age womanhood.  Like that masterpiece of 1980s computer gaming Double Dragon, the hero must face a powerful enemy at the end of each novel, signalling his progression into a knowledgeable and wise being, rather than a smart, love-lorn warrior.

In Enemy of God, Lord Derfel Cadarn beats a familiar path in moving from impetuousity to a respected, sage Warlord, aided by the love of a good woman - perhaps Cornwell best drawn heroine, stands by his lord, Arthur, and drives the plot forward in simple, easily digestible morsels.

Does this sound familiar?  It bloody well should, because I said exactly the same things about his latest Saxon Story, The Burning Land a six months ago.  And could have said much the same of the past four in that series.  The Warlord Chronicles aren't derivative as they predate the Saxon Stories by a number of years, but they certainly bear a close resemblance to one another.  Given some historian's perception that Arthur in fact took his name from King Alfred the Great, this is hardly surprising - but does make for a predictability which is actually now unwelcome.

That's not to say that the book is poorly written at all - it's his usual masterpiece of research, hijinks and intrigue.  Religion, as was it's wont at that time and still is now, plays a tremendously significant role in politics of the era, leading to the Arthur's titular role.  Arthur is portrayed as sympathetically as any of Cornwell's heroes and indeed heroines but with only one difference: despite all indications to the contrary throughout the text, like main protagonist Derfel, are simple one-layered men.  This explains why Derfel's tone throughout writing this first-person account is so loving - they are kindred.

In fact, the same one-layeredness could be said of almost all the men in the novel: from Saxon kings Aelle and Cerdic, to Lancelot, Galahad, Cuneglas, Mordred, Culwhch ... all have personality woven through their descriptions, but are at best single-tiered characters with a minimum of complexity.  What they do, they do well - as was the truth of those times.  As with The Burning Land, the most thickly layered characters are women; especially Guinevere, but also Nimue and Ceinwyn.  

Cornwell once stated that the Warlord Chronicles were his favourite completed works.  They are easy reads and tell a great story with a new vigour and outlook: one of the only accounts of Arthur which doesn't bury itself deep in fantasy.  For that, the author should be respected - but his ability to surprise now must be called into question.  Currently, I'm buried half-way through the final book in the series, Excalibur.  There are few surprises - just consistently excellent writing.

Tennis Balls.

Click here to see the review of Part One of the Warlord Chronicles: The Winter King
Click here to see the review of Part Three of the Warlord Chronicles: Excalibur