Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Death of Kings - Bernard Cornwell

Death of Kings is the sixth book in Cornwell's Saxon Tales, which chronicle the birth of England as a united land around the turn of the tenth century.  It is very much a case of "more of the same" by the author, who delivers one of his more workmanlike novels of his twenty-plus year career.

It goes without saying that Cornwell's research and ability to insert his characters into key points in history are excellent: it is what he does.  Steve Martin makes jokes, water is wet, sickness is not nice and Cornwell will compile immaculate situations, described well and totally contextual.  In fact, Death of Kings is so heavy in a major historical event that the storytelling actually suffers a little.

That event, the death of Alfred the Great and subsequent scrabble for the throne, sees the focus rest with the family of the only Saxon/English monarch to have the title "the Great".  That means that three so-far background characters - Alfred's sons Osferth and Edward as well as his nephew Aethelwold - occupy much of the foreground.

As the two sons play a role in the notional correct inheritance, they are afforded character development which really isn't present for many of the other characters.  Aethelflaed, obviously one of Cornwell's muses, has her role somewhat minimised, while the book's major protagonist Uhtred drives the plot as usual.  With the throne's occupancy somewhat unsettled, the storyline feels similarly transitory - a placemarker until the Saxons move forward into regaining territory lost to the Danish invasions.

The book does thaw of relations between Uhtred and Alfred while the latter lies upon his deathbed.  Despite five earlier episodes and both men over 40 (the middle-ages equivalent of 60 or more) their relationship of respect without liking each other had, as the characters, grown old.
Perhaps as a result of the rise in characters like Osferth in combination with the brutal and violent nature of military battles of the era, sees more of Uhtred's inner circle of warriors dying than for many years.  In the tenth century, warriors wouldn't live to their forties unless they were excellent/smart/lucky, so for Uhtred's cohort of men to make it through the past two books relatively unscathed is something of an anomaly.

While still engaging, Death of Kings lacks some of the easy congruency of the past three Saxon Tales, earning it a rating of tennis balls.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: Stardust - Neil Gaiman

Don't try and take a purposeful walk with Neil Gaiman.  It'll take forever, you'll stop and smell myriad roses and probably end up never getting where you want.  In short, you'll meander, often simply for the sake of it, and he'll keep your attention for a while, but often be left feeling that the whole exercise was pointless.

The journey can be the reward ... but sometimes that reward is unsatisfying and annoying.

I've tried, wanted, to like Gaiman now - two times - and failed.

Stardust is one of my all-time favourite movies.  It's certainly got to be right up there - it features a predictably callow youth coming of age story, plenty of imaginative fight scenes, a strong - climactic - ending, wonderful sense of humour and  features all of Dexter Fletcher, De Niro, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Mark Strong, Michelle Pfeiffer, a chick from Coupling and Claire Danes. 

Yes, Fletcher is listed first because he was in one of my kiddie favourites (Press Gang) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  Perhaps that's where the disconnect occurs: the producer of that seminal modern East-end gangster film was Matthew Vaughn, who directs the feature version of Stardust.  He obtained its rights at no cost from Gaiman, who thought he could do a good job in bringing it to life.  It turns out I like Matthew Vaughn's work a lot more than Neil Gaiman's.  This is one of those rare movies where it exceeds the work from which it grew.
Gaiman's version reads much the same as the first two thirds of the movie, but with the author's typical homespun feel.  While, alongside his delicate, graceful prose, this ability to create believable, real-world fantasies stands as (in my opinion) his greatest skill, this realism doesn't translate through to a big-screen fantasy.  Celluloid, for obvious reasons, plays up popular emotions like love, romance, intrigue and adventure.  Gaiman's style is to do quite the opposite, creating an interesting world with complex, engaging characters motivated by "real" human emotions.

The result is that the novel enchants you for the first sixty pages, then continues and finally peters out with about thirty pages remaining.  There isn't so much a climax, as a slow recession into nothingness like an old man trying to vocalise lost thoughts.  It's not bad, and quite enjoyable, but leaves the reader somewhat disappointed at the lack of climax.  It doesn't feel like it's missing a sword fight, or a great happy ending; just that the final pages see a bunch of interminable meandering, as life would generally provide.

Unfortunately, Gaiman is writing (mostly, up to this point, very well) a fantasy.  We don't want real-world finishes, or at least, I don't.  I want an inventive solution which isn't a deux ex machina.  Gaiman creates wonderful starts, beautiful situations, yet Stardust only strengthened a burgeoning belief that this is his forte, rather than pursuing a narrative.  Tennis balls.