Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Books I Read In January

'The Affinity Bridge' by George Mann
This has classic elements of a steampunk novel set in 1901 it features a mad scientist, crashing airships, automatons and a sword stick with an electric charge.  There is a pairing of an experienced investigator and his young female assistant very much in the Steed/Peel mould.  There are even zombies in East London.  It romps along very well, doing what steampunk does best mixing issues around Victorian society with stories reflecting on the impact of the steam technology on that society and the people within it.  There are some great adventure scenes climaxing on an airship over London.  The stunning scene is when Queen Victoria is revealed to be still alive, ten months after she died in our world, as a result of life support technology.  One oddity is that electricity seems to be readily available but lighting is still all gas both in houses and on the streets.  This seems a little anomalous given that air travel and cybernetics are far advanced on our history and yet lighting lags behind the situation as it was in 1901 in our world.  There is no explanation for this.

The key problem, one that might be connected to the gas light issue, is the lack of editing.  This is ironic given that Mann is a very experienced editor of science fiction magazines and other writing.  I think his standing may have meant that those he lists as helping him gave him a very light touch in terms of critiquing his work.  One problem is the constant switching of points of view, sometimes between three people in a single paragraph.  This is something that any creative writing tutor would emphasise as needing to be avoided.  Yes, you can have different perspectives but they need to be handled carefully to avoid confusing the reader.  Another problem, especially in the first third of the book is simply how many cliches that Mann uses.  Surely he has a more extensive vocabulary to allow him to stay away from so many hackneyed phrases.  Another aspect is the repetition of words in the same sentence or consecutive sentence.  An example comes at the start of Chapter 6: 'It was not yet eight, but she expected that Newbury would already be sitting at his desk, reading the morning newspaper as was typical of his morning routine.' [My emphasis].  This is not wrong, but if I did not know the author I would think s/he was far less experienced than Mann seems to be.  Possibly the worst example of this lack of checking and the proper application of a 'fresh pair of eyes' is the use of 'hanger' when Mann means 'hangar'.  This leads to some comic elements when the heroes are shown around a vast hanger.

I liked this book as I am a fan of steampunk.  However, with more care and attention it could have been better still.  Maybe younger readers are less concerned about these niceties.  Yet the strength of a story comes from people being able to engage with it, follow what is going on and not keep running up against tired phrases they have heard so many times before.  A revised edition of this book would be worthwhile recommending.

'Hannibal: Clouds of War' by Ben Kane
This is the third book in the Hannibal series and features events during the 2nd Punic War (218-201 BCE); a conflict I have fought on 'Rome II Total War' hence this book being bought for me.  It focuses on three characters: Quintus - an upper class Roman now serving in the light infantry; Aurelia his sister and Hanno - a Carthaginian friend of theirs who has fallen in love with Aurelia.  This approach of having people on both sides of a conflict is a common one for war stories and there is nothing wrong with that.  However, given that for most of the book they are in different parts of southern Italy and Sicily this tends to lead to a fragmented story.  This is not aided by the fact that even for the stories of the three leads, what is shown is episodic with jumps when they are suddenly in a different city or involved with some new activity.  The episodes in themselves are well portrayed and gripping.  Kane does not baulk from the horrors of war and the impact on innocent people caught up in it, not just the soldiers.  With his knowledge of the times and the locations he conjures up the settings and the dilemmas very well.  However, the book overall is less than the sum of its parts and once you have finished it you feel that you have read a series of related though not connected short stories.  

It is not a bad book but can leave you feeling dissatisfied.  Furthermore as is the tendency with these long series you feel that each book beyond the first and the last is like a chunk of the story.  It is like a stick of rock with the slice between one book and the other simply coming down arbitrarily.  This seems to be acknowledged by Kane himself as in his Epilogue he outlines what happens to the characters after the events shown, rather than showing that to us as he could easily have done.  Clearly it is to get them into position for the next book based in Spain.  The edition I have has a compliment from Wilbur Smith the veteran historical author.  Kane would benefit from reading and learning from more of Smith's books.  Smith is a populist author, but does manage to weave the stories of various characters together very well and bring the books to a proper conclusion.  Kane may be being applauded but he certainly needs to keep working at his craft if he is going to produce books that are as effective and enduring as Smith's.

There is a good glossary of terms in the back of the book.  As regular readers know I like thorough historical notes.  Kane may take note of what I have been advised if he brings his books to being e-books and have dynamic links to the relevant notes from the text and back again.  What is utterly unnecessary is Kane's showboating in the Epilogue.  I do not feel he needs to tell us what happens next to the characters; he could have handled that better in the narrative.  Certainly he does not need to go on about where he has been and his wonderful travels in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in Europe.  If we did not have faith in his knowledge then we would not read the book.  Thus, his travelogue just jars.  I do not know his background but he seems to be compelled to tell us how much better his life is than ours.  He forgets the bulk of the people reading his book do so to escape from their mundane lives and the fact they cannot afford to gallivant around the places he mentions.  Yes, acknowledge people but do not laud what is effectively a closed shop guild to block out other aspiring historical authors.  Excite the reader with descriptions of places and people, do not make them feel small.  This is something Kane could also learn from Smith a bit of noblesse oblige.

Again, not a bad book, but one that could be better,  Editing has died as an art and this means that books now often have elements that readers are not keen to pay money for.  If you want to talk about your travels put it on your blog, do not bulk out your books by saying how wonderful you and your mates are.

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