Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: The Last Days of New Paris (2017) by China Miéville

Following last year’s This Census-Taker, China Miéville is back with another novella. The wait continues for a new Miéville novel – hard to think that his last one was five years ago – but The Last Days of New Paris does a pretty good filling the gap. It’s easily one of the oddest books that Miéville has released in a long time, and that’s saying something, featuring bicycle-people, wolf-tables and an old man who is partially made out of a steam train…

Bringing together true events and fictional ones, Miéville tells a very different World War II story. In the wake of the war, Paris is overrun with manifestations of surrealist creations – known as ‘manifs’ – who have been set loose on the world due to unknown circumstances. Strange creatures like the ones mentioned above roam the city along with Nazi soldiers who are hurriedly hunting for a secret weapon… Amidst this chaos, a fighter of the surrealist movement named Thibaut joins forces with an American photographer, Sam, in order to escape the ruined city.

As this description suggests, The Last Days of New Paris is an incredibly odd and slightly nonsensical novella – but in the best way possible. There are a number of brilliant and crazy creations featured throughout the story and, as Miéville points out in the afterword, almost all of them owe their origins to famous surrealist art. It’s easy miss some of the novella’s fantastical details, just because there are so many stuffed into it. Despite its short length, the author does a great of building up an imaginative and unique world while paying homage to surrealist artists at the same time.

And, despite feeling stuffed, I think The Last Days of New Paris is the perfect length. There’s definitely not enough material or depth here for a novel – and if Miéville choose to stretch it out any longer I could see the world of New Paris overstaying its welcome. At times the novella’s utter weirdness becomes a little bit tiresome, but I found the author’s afterword – which is an essential read – allowed me to forgive this a bit. He devotes a lot of pages to telling the story behind The Last Days of New Paris, and in many ways, it’s just as interesting as the novella itself.

I won’t deny that this release isn’t quite as satisfying or as immersive as Miéville’s best or even middling works, but its uniqueness is definitely something to be appreciated. It can be read in only a couple of hours, so I wouldn’t recommend paying too much for it, but The Last Days of New Paris is another fascinating release from one of my favourite authors.

Review: The Hanging Tree (2016) by Ben Aaronovitch

Man, isn’t the Peter Grant series great? The Hanging Tree is the sixth book in the series (meaning that you have to get through five other books before you can read it) and potentially the best one. Featuring several books’ worth of pay-off, if you’re a fan of Peter Grant then you should definitely give it a read.

The book focuses on the investigation of a young girl’s death, who is believed to have taken some questionable pills at a party. As the case picks up in becomes clear that there are some magical elements involved it… causing Peter Grant to get involved. He soon discovers that this seemingly small incident is tied to an even bigger case, relating to a practitioner/criminal he’s been chasing for a long time: The Faceless Man.

The story picks up pretty much where the fourth book Broken Homes left off (the fifth one, Foxglove Summer, having taken a bit of a breather from the series’ overall story) with Grant slowly closing in on London’s most dangerous practitioner. I can’t talk too much about where the story picks up (in case there are any readers who haven’t read any of the books in the series yet), but trust me when I say that it does a great job of building on the world that Ben Aaronovitch has built. A lot of old characters return, being drawn back into the story, and a few great new ones are introduced.

Probably the main reason why The Hanging Tree works so well is that it acts as a major turning point for the novel. Like I said, it features several books’ worth of pay-off – feeling like a reward for reading some of the series’ lesser books (mainly Broken Homes). As the sort of person who normally reads standalone novels, I have to admit that there’s nothing quite like a series book like this one that really delivers on everything you hoped it would.

And luckily The Hanging Tree also features Aaronovitch’s usual great writing. It’s not the sort of writing that’s beautiful – there aren’t many great bits of imagery or flowery writing – but the kind that inhibits its protagonist’s voice incredibly well. Heck, all of the characters’ voices. By this stage in the series all of the characters feel well-rounded enough that it’s just fun to watch them bounce off each other (Sahra Guuleed the ‘Muslim ninja’ is a particular highlight). Basically, the writing style is consistent with the books that came before it and that’s a very good thing!

If you love the other books in the series, then you’re guaranteed to love this one. Aaronovitch doesn’t skimp out on giving fans what they want, making for a really rewarding read. And if you haven’t read any Peter Grant books a read before, then, well, give Rivers of London a go! Even if urban fantasy isn’t your sort of thing, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in it.

Review: This Census-Taker (2016) by China Miéville

As I’ve noted before, I normally either love or hate a China Miéville book.  They either suck me up like few other authors’ books do, or I find them overstuffed and dull. This Census-Taker, Miéville’s new novella, falls somewhere in the middle (leaning more towards the love side). It doesn’t reach the heights of his greatest books (like The Scar and The City and the City) but it definitely isn’t a slog. In fact, if anything, I wish it was longer.

Focusing on a boy who lives with his parents on a remote hilltop, This Census-Taker tells a story of loss with a magical realism edge to it. The boy’s mother and father both have mysterious pasts and mysterious talents – his father, for example, is able to craft magical keys that do much more than open doors… But when a traumatic incident tears his home apart, the boy is forced to reach into the wider world for help.

It’s difficult to say too much about this book without giving too much of it away. Miéville is an author I normally associate with huge lengthy novels, and This Census-Taker is easily one of his shortest works (it is a novella, after all). It’s short enough that even describing the opening of the book feels like a spoiler… So I’ll keep things vague. Though the book is fantasy based, it is so on a smaller scale than most of Miéville’s stories. It’s packed with a bunch of weird ideas – such as a mysterious hole where the boy’s family throw their rubbish – enough to probably fill a novel.

There’s a lot of characters as well, but most of them don’t get a lot of page time – such as the titular census taker. This is something that works to the book’s advantage in some ways… Because of the short length, Miéville is able to keep things vague and mysterious. Just as we’re getting to know the world it’s snatched away from us, creating a need to savour the few details that we’re given. Because each idea and character is addressed fairly briefly, none of them stick around long enough to become tedious or dull. (In this sense it’s the complete opposite of Kraken.)

But… while this may be one of the novel’s strengths, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was its biggest weakness as well. The story feels like its only getting started when it draws to a close. Though I’m sure the author envisioned This Census-Taker as a novella, it certainly has an abrupt feel to it. It feels as though, I dunno, the author gets bored of the world before the reader does. Some parts of the novella feel well rounded and finished, but others do not. There’s just too many loose ends for my liking – too many things set up that don’t go anywhere.

But like I said, what’s here is solid – though perhaps not worth the price of admission. Maybe he wrote the story as a novella simply to ensure that the reader is left wanting more…? But then again, I was left wanting more with Perdido Street Station and that was over 800 pages long.

Review: Un Lun Dun (2007) by China Miéville

The more of China Miéville I read, the more I find his books to be a mixed bag. Perdido Street Station and The City and the City? Possibly two of my favourite books ever. Kraken and The Iron Council? I’m kinda ashamed to admit that they’re two of the only books I haven’t been able to finish. Neither of them are downright awful, they’re just missing something… Maybe I’ll return to them eventually.

So obviously I was kind of apprehensive when it came to reading Un Lun Dun. But I’m happy to say that it’s another great Miéville read – great in a different way from his other books, but still great. As a YA novel, it’s basically China Miéville does Neil Gaiman.

Two friends, Zanna and Deeba, find themselves thrust into the weird and imaginative city of UnLondon (or Un Lun Dun). It’s a place filled with ghosts, talking books, karate rubbish cans and killer giraffes – anything is possible there. However, an evil force known only as the Smog plans to destroy both UnLondon and London (Zanna and Deeba’s home), and, with Zanna being labelled as the chosen one, it’s up to her and her friend to save both cities.

The problem with reviewing this novel is that it’s difficult to go into too much detail about why I love it without spoiling it. China Miéville does a terrific job of subverting conventions in this book, tiptoeing around clichés very carefully. And when he does use clichés (such as ‘the chosen one’), he does a great job of eventually turning them on their heads. Un Lun Dun does a great job of analysing groan-worthy conventions in novels, films and even videogames, which I think is a pretty great thing for a YA novel to do. You know, teaching young people that really when it comes to stories, there aren’t really any set rules.

Beyond twisting conventions, the novel also feels original just due to how damn creative it is. It’s just exploding with great ideas – overflowing with them. Like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, it almost feels a bit stuffed at times – there’s enough ideas here to fill a few novels – but somehow it works. From a guy that makes clothes out of literature to a talking book that’s having an existential crisis, there’s never a dull moment. This isn’t a short novel – 500+ pages is a lot – but even when I started to get a bit fatigued with Un Lun Dun towards its end, I still remained impressed with the steady flow of fun ideas. (How about windows with spider legs?)

I only had a couple of problems with the book. In addition to it being a little too long, the tone sometimes feels a little bit muddled. There’s not really anything wrong with swearing in YA novels at all, but there are times where Un Lun Dun feels like it’s aimed at school children and other times where it feels very adult. This is only a small blemish on what is a very good book.

If you’ve never read a Miéville book before, there isn’t a better place to start. This book is fun and creative, and it’s just an absolute joy to read, even at its worst.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is typical Neil Gaiman. It’s got the sort of the storyline that only he could write and characters only he could create. It’s got that childhood joyfulness about it, despite, at the same time, feeling very adult. And like most Neil Gaiman books, it’s very good.

After returning to the town he grew up in for a funeral, a man finds himself remembering things about his childhood he had long forgotten… Sitting in a farmhouse he hasn’t visited in decades, the man slowly recalls the time he spent with a girl named Lettie Hemstock and the adventure they went on together.

The novel is about memory; forgetting things, remembering things and misremembering things. We all did exciting things when we were kids, went on adventures, made up stories… and sometimes it only takes the smallest thing to cause these memories to come back to us with the clearest clarity. This is what I think Gaiman is trying to tap into with this novel – and, if so, it’s something he does really well. It only takes the smallest moment to make the protagonist’s entire adventure with Lettie to come flooding back to him – after it had escaped from him – and it causes him to relive his childhood again. At the back of the book, Gaiman even notes that his inspiration for the novel came from his father telling him about an event from his childhood that he had completely forgotten about.

Like most of his novels, Gaiman crams The Ocean at the End of the Lane to the brim with ideas. I wouldn’t say it works quite as well for me here as it did in American Gods and Stardust, but it’s still a joy to see all the fantastical things that come out of his head. And it really ties into the child perspective of the novel. All kids come up with weird and wonderful ideas, and Gaiman’s method of filling the book with fantastical ideas really seems to reflect that. The protagonist’s childhood adventure – despite its darker moments – almost seems like the sort of thing a kid would come up with.

And like a child’s story, if you look too deeply into the novel and try to analyse it too much, it does start to come apart at the seams a little bit, and becomes a little bit nonsensical. So don’t. Just relish the opportunity to become a child again, and enjoy all the book’s great colourful characters; Lettie, Old Mrs Hemstock, Ursula Monkton…

Neil Gaiman has once again written the sort of story that all writers wish they could write.