Thursday, January 22, 2009

Night Over Water

I believe this excerpt from Ken Follett's novel best sums up its literary quality:
Now, while most people on the plane were still asleep, would be his chance of getting into the hold. Luggage locks would not delay him long. In no time at all he could have the Delhi Suite in his hands.

But he was wondering whether Margaret's breasts were not the most precious jewels he would ever hold.
Yeah, this was garbage. Like other Follett novels I've read (mostly when I was a teenager craving slightly richer stroke material than Penthouse Letters), all I'll probably end up remembering are the sex scenes (although, for some reason, I do retain the detailed passage in Lie Down With Lions on how shaped charges work using C4 and a Coke can). Still, I read the book because I needed inspiration for my upcoming game at DunDraCon (both involve Clipper planes and wartime intrigue, although less with the squamous horror here), and it certainly provided plenty of that. And I have to admit that Follett's formula of "MGM epic WWII romance if they had sex scenes on par with Caligula" is as much a part of the zeitgeist that informs my take on Our Darkest Hour as anything else.

This was trashy but mostly fun, basically Grand Hotel on the last commercial seaplane flying from Britain to the United States just as war is declared in 1939. Night Over Water lacks the excitement of Follett's espionage novels like Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca, mainly because the characters' motivations lean more towards adultery, business fraud, and theft than in the great struggle that looms over such mundane proceedings. Indeed, nothing really happens until the last twenty pages, and when it does happen, the bad guys are so toothless that it feels like Follett just got bored with it by the end. Any climax that involves a German U-boat where the author never shows the U-boat is by definition perfunctory. So yeah, I guess it sucked. A very readable kind of suckage though, I'll give it that.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I really wanted to like this book, and for the most part, I did. It kept my attention throughout, there were parts where I really didn't want to put the book down no matter how late the evening was, and I do plan on reading the following two books in the trilogy... but, for over 600 pages of just Act One of a three-part story, I came away from Winterbirth feeling rather unsatisfied.

I was expecting Winterbirth to follow along the formula set up by its fantasy genre relative A Song of Ice and Fire, and, in some sense, it does: a low-magic setting based on Anglo-Scottish history with the serial numbers filed off, forest-dwelling Elves-not-called-Elves as both antagonists and allies, all as background for a bunch of political struggles between short-sighted feudal barons while the Great Big Bad™ rises unseen in the shadows. What might sounds generic and unoriginal can, in the right hands, become deeply effective and mythic; and, the author Brian Ruckley, a Scottish eco-hippie turned genre novelist, is a solid writer.

That said, there's just not enough meat in Winterbirth. Whereas every paragraph of the Ice and Fire books are crammed with little details hinting at the myriad vastness of the world outside Westeros and the rich history yet untapped by Martin, Ruckley's world seems rather plain. Worse, his characters have no real complexity (the primary protagonist Orisian is particularly vanilla) and Ruckley spends such little time fleshing them out before dropping them straight into the narrative (which, in the first novel, consists almost entirely of people either fleeing or being pursued around the countryside) that it isn't until nearly the end of the book that I actually start to care about them. That's a real problem as a good third of those characters are killed off by then.

Where Ruckley does shine is in establishing the gritty and bloody mood these books are well-regarded for. Maybe it's that I watched the BBC's History of Scotland documentary before I started reading Winterbirth, or that the Black Road antagonists (think the love child of John Calvin and Osama bin Laden) are so grimly different from usual fantasy baddies, but the novel does give the reader the sense of wind-chilled mail rubbing on calloused flesh. It may have its roots in Tolkein, but its heart is of refreshingly sterner stuff.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

I. Am. Old.

The new Doctor is...

My knee-jerk reaction is horror. It looks like we've ended up with some emo hipster hybrid of that douche in Twilight and k.d. lang after a sex change. The new show-runner is Stephen Moffat, who crafts more adult and more effective Who stories than the previous king Russell T. Davies; but this kind of thing has happened before, where darker scripts are wedded to an inadequate actor with goofy hair, and it didn't turn out so well.

But then... I realized, as the title suggests, that I am old, and when I think "he needs a hair-cut" and "how can anyone so young be taken seriously as the Doctor", I must admit that's just my age talking. The truth is that we know nothing about this guy, as we knew nothing about Tennant, who turned out to be one of the best Doctors we've yet had. And my Doctor - the one who was there when I first discovered the show - is Peter Davison, who was not much older than this Smith character. So I will remain optimistic.

Though I still think Paterson Joseph would've been superb. While he would've probably played it differently, his Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere would've made for an excellent interpretation in and of itself.