Where I get all sci-fi and fantasyish and do a bit of reviewing.

Sometime ago I commented on this very blog that I’m in favour of doing what every teacher I’ve ever had advised and reading widely. I think I said it here. I definitely said it though, and it was definitely right-headed thinking when I did say it.

In that spirit I tend to read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and of different genres of fiction. Recently, though, I seem to have been stuck on a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy roll, and so I thought, “Hey!” (Yes, I actually thought “Hey!” with the exclamation mark and everything) “Why don’t I write a sci-fi/fantasy themed book review blogpost?” And I could think of no good reason why not, and there are no responsible adults around to stop me, so here it is.

Generally, I can swing either way on sci-fi and fantasy. I’m properly quite addicted to Terry Pratchett (to the point of wondering whether there’s a boxed set of all the Discworld novels that I could pass off as a single volume if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs). On the opposite end of the scale I don’t think I’d manage to finish Lord of the Rings even if I was marooned on a desert island and it was the only book. Doctor Who, I have adored since Peter Davidson’s incumbency. Star Wars (whisper it quietly so as to avoid actual physical violence) I can pretty much take or leave. Obviously, I’m talking original trilogy here. The prequels serve no purpose at all beyond providing an emergency Ewan McGregor fix and there are better ways to get that (Moulin Rouge, A Life Less Ordinary & Shallow Grave would be my picks). Even with the originals, I see that they’re culturally iconic, but I’ve watched them all, right through once in the cinema. I’d have no actual hard objection to seeing them again, but it wouldn’t obviously enhance my life.

So that’s where I stand on fantasy and sci-fi generally. Love some. Hate some. Tolerate others. Before I descend into separating all fantasy into Howard from Fresh Meat – if you’re not watching it, you should – style Good and Bad lists (Buffy=Good, Heroes series 1=Good, Rest of Heroes=Bad etc.), lets move onto some actual reviewing.

I’ve read three books with a fantasy vibe lately: The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. They’re probably all more fantasy than sci-fi, but I don’t really have the mental energy to debate the difference. I could term them speculative fiction, but that sounds a tad unnecessarily wordy. Let’s just call them books and be done with it.

 

First up – Kate Johnson’s The Untied Kingdom

This novel is essentially a fantasy romance. The plot hangs off a regular girl from contempory Britain slipping through a crack in time and space and finding herself in an alternate version of reality, where the country is economically and technologically backward and in the midst of a civil war.

Judging from the acknowledgements, Johnson’s a bit of a fantasy fan herself, as she credits Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon amongst her inspirations. There’s certainly more than a little bit of Discworld’s Sam Vimes about her male lead, and a big dollop of Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Wars hero, Richard Sharpe. Nothing wrong with that – both are good templates for the tough working class boy made good character at the centre of this story.

I applaud the writer’s ambition. There’s a lot of advice given to writers about what you can and can’t do within a genre. Romance is a genre seen as being aimed squarely at women. Sci-fi has more of a teenage boy reputation. Putting the two together takes nerve, and it’s a risk which is largely sucessful. If anything I’d have liked a bit more of the alternate reality woven in around the central romance plot, but it’s a good read, and it’s brilliant to find a contemperary romance that feels original and has such an interesting premise. This novel is also one that demands a sequel. Without giving away the ending, I really do want to know what these characters do next.

 

Second up, Jasper Fforde and Shades of Grey.

Fforde is one of the big hitters in the comic fantasy market. He’s the author behind the successful Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey is the first in a potential new series, and is based around the premise that people can only see certain colours, and colour perception is attribute around which society is organised. Good writing should engage a reader’s senses, so writing about characters who don’t perceive the world the way the reader does is hard. Two thumbs way way up to Fforde for absolutely pulling this off. Rather than alienating the reader from the characters, their world feels immediate and real.

In a sense this novel is 1984 with an magnified sense of the absurd. You have a dystopian society, an everyman protagonist who is starting to doubt the society he’s living in, and perhaps the beginnings of a relationship with a more rebellious politically aware woman. It’s intended to be the first in a series, and I think it’s probably the first time since the blessed JK hung up her Hogwarts quill that I’ve finished a book feeling bereft at the wait for the next installment. For me Fforde’s earlier series took a little while to warm up – the later books are much better than the earlier ones. This time he’s hit the ground running. Loved this book.

 

And finally, in my little fantasy reading phase, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Gaiman himself is a bit of a god in the sci-fi/fantasy world, and he’s done some truly fabulous stuff. His Doctor Who ep in the last season was a stand out, and Good Omens (co-written with Sir Terry of Pratchett) is a proper pageturner. The premise of American Gods is intriguing – people from all over the globe populated America, so what happened to the gods they brought with them? Have those gods survived and what has been lost in translation to their new home? And how will they respond to the new “religions” of modern life?

I did struggle to get into this book – it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s a Big Book. I think it is one to take on holiday or on a long train journey – somewhere where you’re going to be able to settle down and read for a couple of hours at a time. It’s one that you need to read your way into. It took me a while to get going with, I think, because I was pushed for time and reading only a few pages at a go.

We do also need to talk about the length. The edition I have is labelled “Author’s Preferred Text” – words which I naturally greet with the same trepidation as the phrase “Director’s Cut.” Sure – it could mean that the evil corporate sales people bowdlerised your work and you’ve now been able to restore the fully glory of your artistic vision. More often I just think that writers and directors need to know when to step away from the thing they’re working on and move on. Anyway. Gaiman acknowledges that this edition is 12000 words longer than the originally published version. I haven’t done a comparison, so I don’t know which words were added, but my feeling is that this book is slightly longer than it needs to be. So, I would recommend this book, but I would probably suggest seeking out the shorter original text and saving it for a day when you can really settle down with it and immerse your brain in Gaiman’s world.

So that is what I have been reading of late. Next up I’m going into a Crime phase (reading, not doing). It was quite rightly pointed out to me, by my very wise senior sibling, that for all my “Read widely” waffle I very rarely read crime fiction. To right this wrong, she has also provided me with a shelf of crime fiction to get my teeth into. CJ Sansom, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben and Michael Rowbotham here I come.