Review: Garth Nix’s ‘Goldenhand’ (#5 The Old Kingdom)

★★★★☆

In chronological terms, Goldenhand marks the grand finale of The Old Kingdom series (unless Garth Nix returns with another sequel, which would not surprise me). This fifth instalment picks up pretty much where Abhorsen left off. Lirael is now Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and everything is coming up roses. With her enemy defeated, a new family to love, and a fulfilled cosmic destiny to celebrate, it seems Lirael can now enjoy a well-deserved happy ending.

Not so for Nicholas Sayre, however. South of the Wall and convalescing from a bad case of demonic possession, Nick still feels the pull of the Old Kingdom. Despite being a young man of scientific principles, he admits there might be more to magic than hokum, something he dismissed the Charter as during Abhorsen. Still troubled by his experiences under the influence of the Destroyer, Nick struggles to find peace. Also, his thoughts keep returning to Lirael, in the wistful hope that they might meet again.

I liked this book a lot more than Clariel, which has in some ways bumped my rating upwards. The main success of Goldenhand is that it reads true to the mood and messages of the original trilogy. It is not a tangential departure from the characters we know and care about, and it does not fall into the trap of tired regurgitation. I really liked Ferin, who is the one significant new character this book introduces. Though Goldenhand is in many ways a victory lap, or a final farewell to beloved friends, Ferin’s presence helps this book stand on its own feet.

“You have done great things,” said Vancelle. “And all of us in the Library are very, very proud of you.”

“Thank you,” said Lirael. She fought back the tears in her eyes, because though she no longer felt she was one of the Clayr, she still felt she was a librarian and always would be, no matter what else she had become as well.

As mentioned, my four-star rating is less a reflection of this book’s inherent quality, and more a comment on how much better it is compared to Clariel. I confess, Goldenhand is a simple narrative, offering less to discuss than the previous instalments of the series. I was not disappointed by it, but I will not be singing any rapturous praises.

Romance seems to be the theme Nix most struggles with as a writer. The simple love story in Sabriel works, but only because the romantic elements are limited to an incidental subplot that draws no attention to itself. Clariel offers something messier, but again it is not a focal point. Goldenhand makes the romance more overt, with questionable success. The uncomplicated approach of ‘You love me? Great! I love you too,’ works in Sabriel because the characters involved are mature, disciplined individuals who have understated relationships with their emotions. Lirael and Nick bring more volatile personality traits to the table, which makes such tidiness feel less than realistic.

I was also a little sad that the focus of this novel was not the relationship between Lirael and Sabriel. This is not to say I dislike the Lirael/Nick dynamic, but I think the unusual sisterhood between Abhorsen and Abhorsen-in-Waiting had the potential to offer something much more interesting. Given that Lirael and Abhorsen were in large part characterised by Lirael’s desire to be part of a ‘true’ family, it seems a shame to see this complex theme discarded in favour of an inoffensive but unremarkable YA romance.

For fans of the original trilogy, this book may come as nothing short of relief, redeeming the series from Clariel‘s failings. It is by no means a read to be avoided. I do hope the author never releases another sequel, however. At this point, the extended narrative is beginning to fray around the edges, and the writing seems of lesser quality. I think any attempt to stretch things further is likely to run up against the law of diminishing returns.

Review: Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s ‘Revolting Prostitutes’

★★★★★

Even in the most progressive spheres of political thinking, the legalisation of prostitution is a contentious, taboo subject, one that remains difficult to discuss with calm rationale due to the strength of revulsion or bridling defensiveness the topic provokes.

Also, though the majority of prostitutes are female, sex work is to many schools of feminism a kind of bête noire. Both vilified and victimised, the prostitute may find herself represented in mainstream feminist discourse as the ultimate manifestation of victimhood. She is the embodiment of a predominantly female strata of society reduced to indignity and destitution by patriarchal power structures, and the archetypal target of gender-based violence. Though the perspectives of prostitutes in their actuality are seldom seen or heard in academic writing and political debate, the existence of sex work haunts many a feminist narrative.

If feminism is about equality, it follows that the most maligned voices should have an equal seat at the table. In practice, however, the idea of the vulnerable, voiceless prostitute is a useful weapon, and one that appeals to many feminists a great deal more than the complex perspectives of real women who work in the sex industry. For the prostitute as an idea to remain a disenfranchised victim, the voices of real prostitutes must be shut out from the debate, or dismissed as a kind of Stockholm advocacy for an industry which is inherently degrading and dangerous for women. Sex workers are seen as people whose vulnerabilities mean they must be advocated for, rather than people who should be met with open ears when they advocate for themselves. This paternalistic, belittling treatment, often found in the most ‘liberated’ spaces, serves only to deepen the prostitute’s exile from discussions which shape political policy, even when the policies in question profoundly impact women who work in the sex industry.

Prostitution is heavy with meaning and brings up deeply felt emotions. This is especially the case for people who have not sold sex, and who think of it in symbolic terms. The idea of prostitution serves as a lightning rod for questions about work, masculinity, class, bodies; about archetypal villainy and punishment; about who ‘deserves’ what; about what it means to live in a community; and about what it means to push some people outside that community’s boundaries. Attitudes towards prostitution have always been strongly tied to questions of race, borders, migration, and national identity in ways which are sometimes overt but often hidden. Sex work is the vault in which society stores some of its keenest fears and anxieties. 

Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (2018) is a ground-breaking book, since its authors are themselves women who sell sex for money. Crucially, Smith and Mac are not women who work with sex workers, or former sex workers. They are active prostitutes, advocating from within the community. Speaking from the perspective of ongoing experience, these authors are not observers, but people directly invested in the betterment of sex workers’ lives.

There are few things more dangerous than ignorant good intentions, something the authors of this book understand, having seen and experienced the negative impact of well-meaning or moralistic legislation passed without consulting sex workers. Something this book makes pains to convey is the value of utilising sex workers’ perspectives on their industry to improve the conditions therein, and the good which can be achieved by setting aside the idea of the prostitute in favour of engaging with and improving her myriad realities.

Meticulously researched, precise and insightful, Revolting Prostitutes is a masterful piece of non-fiction, and one that I think anyone, regardless of political persuasion, will find informative and thought-provoking. Like all the best non-fiction, this book reaches for the dignity of the facts, shying away from sensationalism. Though it is only 220 pages (excluding the extensive bibliography), this book is knowledgeable and intelligent, presenting a great deal that is worth thinking about.

Women like Daria and Paula need so little – some basic safety and resources – that it is easy to imagine society meeting those needs. Yet, at the same time, they needed so much – in that to imagine a society that takes their safety seriously is to imagine a society profoundly transformed.

To my mind, the mark of a really good piece of non-fiction is coming away from it with a sense of changed or deepened understanding. The legalisation of prostitution was a topic that I delved into with great interest during my undergrad, but nothing I read at that time left me as educated as I felt by the end of this book. In particular, Smith and Mac’s unpacking of the ‘Nordic model’ of criminal legislation shifted my perspective. This book presents compelling examples of the differences between legalisation and decriminalisation. It also candidly explores the danger of legislation that is too idealistic to confront the bottom line: women who become prostitutes are rarely led to the industry by their lack of education or a history of trauma, but because they have no other way of making enough money to survive.

This book also discusses the intersectionality between migration, law enforcement and prostitution. In failing to acknowledge the economic factors which motivate or force women into sex work, and the many-headed hydra of issues which affect sex workers’ wellbeing, legislation often punishes the people it purports to protect. Revolting Prostitutes unpacks this in a way which is accessible and easy to understand, but still manages to present the topic with full-picture complexity. The writing is excellent throughout, and the authors’ arguments are little short of watertight.

At the close, I want to give a copy of Revolting Prostitutes to everyone I know. I know I will be talking about this book a lot, for a long time, with anyone who will listen.

Review: Garth Nix’s ‘Clariel’ (#4 The Old Kingdom)

★★★☆☆

A prequel, set approximately 600 years before the events of Sabriel, Clariel is technically the first book in The Old Kingdom series. This is more of a technicality than a suggestion for reading order, however, since this novel was published in 2014, more than ten years after the original trilogy.

Clariel is sufficiently standalone to read well from a retrospective angle. Chronology aside, I would not recommend this as a starting point for the simple reason that new readers may be dissuaded from continuing to the better books written before this one. Based on the Goodreads average rating, Clariel is the least-favoured instalment in The Old Kingdom series. I can only compare to the original trilogy for the moment, but it is certainly true that this book is not on the same level as its predecessors. Overall, I think this can be classed as a two-star book lifted to three stars by a few bright flares of inspiration.

The main difficulty this book faces is in giving its protagonist enough redemption to make the reader root for her. Given that our girl’s narrative journey is one of becoming a worse person, and that from a starting point of being a fairly subpar individual to begin with, this is a significant battle. Narrow-minded and mulish, Clariel’s single goal in life is achieving a state of total freedom, essentially because she believes people are rubbish and that her life would be perfect if she could live like Peter Pan, unbeholden to anyone and free from the confines of any kind of society. This goal is pursued almost single-mindedly, with little care for what it might cost.

“You thought that we limit the choices of our students?” asked Ader. “We do not, but it is a sad fact that the great majority limit themselves. You might find it best to keep your ambition secret, Lady Clariel. Many here would consider it too small, a thing to be made fun of.”

Antiheroes are my favourite type of character, so I was surprised how little I could find to like in this protagonist. I think the problem is that Clariel is not an actual antihero, but just a small-minded person who at every turn chooses ignorance over the opportunity to expand her worldview. She is an aromantic asexual, which is a pleasing bit of representation, but in trying to present this in an explicitly stated manner, Nix ends up tying his protagonist’s asexuality in with her unhealthy dislike of all people. Asexuality is valid, but it does not mean choosing a friendless life of complete loneliness, which the more I think about it, the more Clariel seems to imply.

Our girl believes that if she can just run away and get back to her beloved forest, she will somehow shed her responsibilities and everything will work out okay. It is a decent enough starting point, but we are saddled with this reductive mindset for the entire book. Even in the face of mounting evidence that there are other paths to take, better choices to make, Clariel responds by digging her heels in. It is not unrealistic behaviour for an immature 17-year-old, but for a character to be the focus of a story, they need to be on a journey and developing as a person. Regardless of events, Clariel never moves from her starting point, for better or for worse, which is just frustrating.

No one asked for this prequel, so it is strange to note that this books often feels like such a token effort. The prose is not awful, but Garth Nix can write better than this. He has written better than this. Given that Clariel marks a return to a world long-abandoned by the author, it begs a question of intention. Who was this book meant for? What was it meant to be?

It wasn’t her problem, thought Clariel. Let others politick and plot and counterplot. She would be away from the city soon enough, and in the Great Forest within a week.

The pity is in the potential. Had Nix followed through on a full-blown villain arc, Clariel could have been a compelling read, but there is a definite unwillingness to commit. Let our girl consort with demons and rain hellfire on her enemies! The reasons for holding back on making Clariel a weapon of mass destruction are never made clear, and they serve more to hamstring than to humanise her.

The book is (narrowly) pulled back from the brink by a few of the secondary cast. Madame Ader is a cool character, woefully underutilised. Then there is Belatiel, and the return of Mogget. Though I hate the unrequited love subplot – totally unnecessary – more of Bel’s perspective might have helped to balance out Clariel’s boring obsession with life as the average squirrel. And Mogget is Mogget, of course. No more need be said.

Nix did not need to return to The Old Kingdom, so to see him come back to it in such a lacklustre fashion is a bit depressing. One thing that gives me hope, however, is that Clariel might be just the rough point of re-entry. Nix returned to this series after a long break, so perhaps Goldenhand, published only two years later, will iron out the creases.

Update: I finished Goldenhand. You can read my review by clicking here.

Review: Garth Nix’s ‘Abhorsen’ (#3 The Old Kingdom)

★★★★☆

Alas, not as good as I had hoped! Admittedly, that seems rather a silly exclamation to make at the opening of a four-star review, but after the delight I experienced in rereading Sabriel and Lirael, I cannot deny that Abhorsen feels a little like a comedown. Only a little, I am pleased to emphasise, but it is difficult to frame a comedown as anything else.

This third instalment in the series, and its original conclusion, was published in 2003. We pick up where Lirael left off, and again follow Lirael and Sameth into death and danger. The stakes could not be higher, since after all the trials of the previous book they are now tasked with preventing something like the biblical end of days. With Sabriel and King Touchstone trapped in a diplomatic quagmire south of the Wall, it is up to the new generation. From the outset, we know there will be battle, and bloodshed.

I think the mistake I made here was in expecting major character developments and dramatic revelations. In truth, this was never a real possibility, since all the big secrets were revealed at the end of Lirael. For Sameth, come into his Wallmaker inheritance, this dramatic narrative is effectively a winding down. His gifts are valued more than anything as a reprieve, sparing him from the horrors he feared as Abhorsen-in-Waiting. That mighty path having fallen to Lirael instead, you would think our girl would be a bit less mopey, but improvement is debatable. Admittedly, there is less wistful pining over her not being a proper daughter of the Clayr than there was in the last book, but it still peppers the narrative, not helping with her likeability.

“I have never known what to tell anybody. Except that it is better to do something than nothing, even if the cost is great.”

In many ways, Abhorsen does not feel like a novel in its own right, but a direct continuation of Lirael. I suspect the only reason they were split was to avoid a heftier page count than is generally acceptable in the YA genre. All in all, Abhorsen is a simpler book than Sabriel and Lirael. There are no new characters of any note, and the plot boils down to a straightforward battle between good and evil. I seldom like this, because I think such binary conflicts lack the moral complexity to make them interesting. Also, since the triumph of ultimate evil is difficult to sell as a satisfying ending, victory for the good guys tends to read as a foregone conclusion.

Happily, there is still a lot to like. Garth Nix’s writing remains atmospheric and immersive, and there are some spellbinding scenes – the trip to the bottom of the well is particularly good, and downright spooky. Abhorsen also succeeds in raising the stakes, the lack of big surprises doing nothing to detract from a deepening sense of the sinister forces at work. Rain-drenched and bloody, Abhorsen takes the characters to dark places. It can never quite shake a sense that everything is going to work out in the end, but there is jeopardy. The notion that everyone is going to muddle through somehow is not a guarantee that no one will be hurt along the way.

I would have liked to see more of Sabriel and Touchstone. Much to my delight, the power couple of the series have a few of their own scenes in Abhorsen, reminding me how much I adore them. This gift comes somewhat at the expense of Lirael and Sam, however, who remain more tolerable than truly loveable. In many ways, the snippets of Sabriel’s presence are sumptuous morsels, whetting the appetite for an entire meal in her flavour. It left me even less hungry for Lirael’s introspections.

“I don’t suppose there’s much else we can do,” Lirael said quietly. “So I guess I’d better give it a go. Where’s Mogget? I’m curious to see what he thinks of your plan.”

“It stinks,” said Mogget’s voice from the shade below the boulder. “But there’s no reason why it won’t work.”

Another pleasing addition is some added perspective from Nicholas Sayre. All signs point to him being Lirael’s future love interest, but like Touchstone before him there are indications that this man has a destiny independent of his wife-to-be. In truth, it is this character in whom I place my hopes for Goldenhand, which I otherwise eye with a degree of wariness. At the close of Abhorsen, I have to say that a further sequel feels unnecessary. There are few threads which are spared the scissor snip of a clean conclusion, so the prospects for an additional chunk of narrative seem limited.

At 400 pages, Abhorsen is a tidy, optimistic ending to a powerful trilogy. Though I have not read any of his other works, the original three Old Kingdom novels are sufficient to demonstrate that Nix is a king among worldbuilders. The setting features necromancy, a case of demonic possession and multiple talking animals, yet it remains incredibly believable throughout. Even measured against fully fledged adult fantasy, I can think of few series which have offered me such a thrilling sense of escapism.

I intend to read the prequels and further sequel with an open mind, but there is a special magic to the original trilogy that I do not anticipate the series’ later additions will match. Though I have considered the possibility that this is the result of my nostalgia towards those books I read as a teen, I think it is more that I closed the last page of Abhorsen with satisfaction, and a sense of the series’ completeness. More may well prove nice, but because of the pleasing finality which this book closes on, I remain to be convinced that the add-ons will provide something that was missing.

Update: You can read my review of Clariel by clicking here.

Review: Garth Nix’s ‘Lirael’ (#2 The Old Kingdom)

★★★★★

After the joy I found in rereading Sabriel, it was impossible not to proceed directly to the sequel, Lirael, which was published six years later (2001). After a 14-year time jump between the two books, we re-enter the Old Kingdom through the eyes of one who has lived her entire young life in its northmost reaches. Our title character, who we meet as an unhappy teenager, is a daughter of the Clayr. Having been abandoned by her mother in early childhood, Lirael lives a narrow, lonely existence among her multitude of aunts and female cousins. All are blessed with the clairvoyant gift of Sight, except her.

Having never ventured from the glacier the Clayr call home, Lirael lacks the perspective to conceive of a continuing existence in which she remains ungifted and thus an outsider in her own home. Death is the only way out, or so it seems. When a fateful meeting interrupts Lirael before she can muster the courage to end it all, our heroine’s path changes direction. We follow her to the mystical library, a miniature realm within the Clayr’s territory that brims with ancient secrets and hidden dangers.

150 pages in, the book makes another time jump, taking us to Lirael’s 19th birthday. We are also introduced to Prince Sameth, the younger child of Sabriel, and the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. Like his mother before him, Sameth has spent his school years across the Wall in the mundane realm of Ancelstierre. In contrast to Sabriel, however, who proved herself ready to shoulder the unexpected responsibility of her death bells in late adolescence, Sam is younger than his years, and obviously unprepared for the dangers of the Old Kingdom, never mind the Nine Gates of Death.

But at the same time Lirael also felt a blooming sense of excitement, even of escape, from a life that she couldn’t admit was stifling her. There was Finder, and the sunshine beyond, and the Ratterlin streaming away to lands she knew only from the pages of books. She had the dog statuette and the hope her canine companion would return. And she was going on official business, doing something important. Almost like a real Daughter of the Clayr.

Whilst I felt an immediate affinity with Sabriel in the first book, it took me some time to warm up to these new characters. Lirael and Sam are much more teenage, and they are presented in a less likeable light. Lirael is a sneaky liar who gets away with it, and Sameth reads as a coward. However, something I appreciate more as an adult reader is that people in need of improvement are often the best characters, because they have so much room for positive growth.

Lirael is a different kind of book to Sabriel. This is not the journey of a heroine rising to her ordained destiny. Instead, it is the story of two characters discovering that their paths lead in different directions than envisioned. For Lirael, who has only ever wanted one thing, this is a painful transformation to undergo, which in some ways lends the novel a deeper profundity than its predecessor.

At 550 pages, Lirael is the chunkiest novel in The Old Kingdom series, but it remains extremely readable. Since I found myself unable to detach the book from my hand, I finished it in a day. The pacing, plot and prose are excellent. Sadly, I think the YA leanings of Garth Nix’s writing leave him somewhat underrated as an author. Given the enduring popularity of dark fantasy, I think only this can explain why these wonderful books have yet to be adapted for a TV series.

“Be assured that any hurt to your spirit will pass in time. It is the nature of Death to take, but the nature of Life to give.”

Another selling point is the return of Mogget, together with the arrival of a second talking animal companion, the Disreputable Dog. Animal sidekicks have the unfortunate potential to undermine a human protagonist through silliness, but Nix handles both cat and canine with dexterous hands. Given Lirael’s inability to truly befriend any of the humans around her, the Dog helps to humanise her, encouraging the expression of redeeming qualities that would otherwise prove difficult to emphasise.

All that remains to be said is that this was another exquisite reread, serving to elevate my original opinion of the book. Previously, I rated Lirael at four stars, I think purely because I did not resonate with the characters as much as I did with Sabriel. Truth be told, Lirael remains a little self-pitying throughout – she rather purposefully ignores the important fact that the Clayr, despite not really understanding her, have always loved her – but this can be dismissed with a shrug. Our girl is, after all, a nineteen-year-old. Innocence and ignorance are also the natural characteristics of most people who have yet to take their first few steps into the world beyond their childhood home.

I confess, I do not remember the series’ third instalment, Abhorsen, in any real detail, so I am both curious and excited to follow Lirael and Sam as they continue their development in what was the original denouement. Since my first reading of the series during my early teens, Nix has expanded The Old Kingdom with two prequels – Clariel, followed by Terciel and Elinor – and a final sequel, Goldenhand. Naturally, I plan to read and review all in due course.

Update: I finished Abhorsen. You can find my review here.

Review: Garth Nix’s ‘Sabriel’ (#1 The Old Kingdom)

★★★★★

It is difficult to put into words how much I loved this book when I discovered it in my school library all those years ago. To my 13-year-old self, Sabriel was the peak of literature. At the time, I knew only that it was one of the most amazing books I had ever read. Now, as I look back, I know its impact on me was far greater than I realised. This was one of the stories that made me want to write stories of my own.

Beloved childhood favourites can offer a bittersweet reading experience when revisited as an adult. Due to the risk of painful disenchantment, I rarely look back. On occasion, however, old friends offer a charming afterglow that no novelty or new release can beat. For me, Sabriel is one example.

Our title character is 18 years old, and soon to graduate from the prestigious girls’ boarding school, Waverly College, in Ancelstierre. Sabriel’s loving but somewhat distant father is the Abhorsen, a necromancer whose unique duties keep him busy in the Old Kingdom across the border, where he works to send the restless and reawoken dead to their final resting place beyond the Nine Gates of Death. As his only child, it is implied that Sabriel is destined to inherit the weighty mantle of the role. The time to step up comes far sooner than expected, however, when our heroine receives an ambiguous message from her father, implying that he is trapped within Death, and needs her help. Accompanied by a talking cat, Mogget – one of the most iconic animal sidekicks ever written – Sabriel soon realises she must use her gifts and years of training to save not only her father, but the living, the dead, and herself.

“I have a variety of names,” replied the cat. It had a strange voice, half-mew, half-purr, with hissing on the vowels. “You may call me Mogget. As to what I am, I was once many things, but now I am only several. Primarily, I am a servant of Abhorsen. Unless you would be kind enough to remove my collar?”

Sabriel was published in 1995, and has done an amazing job of standing the test of time. In fact, there is so little about this book which dates it that I had to check the publication year listed on Wikipedia against the opening flyleaf before I was prepared to believe it. I think the most lovely thing about Sabriel as a character is her down-to-earth normality. I find a lot to dislike about YA, but one of my biggest peeves about the genre is the way it so often pigeonholes young female characters into cliques and clichés that define their personality. A normal young woman with no gender-based hang-ups makes for a refreshing departure.

The worldbuilding of The Old Kingdom series is incredible, and the necromancy lore benefits from not being overexplained. Clever concepts are easy to overdo, but Garth Nix leaves plenty of space for the reader’s imagination, whilst still managing to avoid any sense that the setting is unrealised. This is a deep, immersive world, and the first book of the saga invites the reader not to observe Sabriel’s adventure as a distant outsider, but to walk the road with her.

Given how long ago it was that I first read this series, I returned to it with the full expectation that I would emerge disillusioned this time around. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that rereading Sabriel as an adult only allowed me to better appreciate Nix’s smooth, considered writing. I would live in books like this, if it was possible.

“I have walked in Death to the very precipice of the Ninth Gate,” Abhorsen said quietly. “I know the secrets and horrors of the Nine Precincts. I do not know what lies beyond, but everything that lives must go there, in the proper time. That is the rule that governs our work as the Abhorsen, but it also governs us… I have not taught you as well as I should – let this be my final lesson. Everyone and everything has a time to die.”

Though I am not the adolescent I was when I first read the book, Sabriel remains one of my all-time favourite literary personalities. There is a grounded truth to her character that rings with authenticity. I also really like that she is so inherently female, without this being sexualised or over-romanticised. With her woollen knickerbockers and quiet determination, Sabriel does not read like the type of character whose personality has been constructed to meet a set of ideals. She is a warrior, but she is also girlish, gentle and dignified. Simply put, she has a human complexity that feels entirely real.

Overall, I think Sabriel is a modern classic. The book has a timelessness that will see me passing my copy down to any children I have when they become teenagers. It also embodies a specific subgenre that ranks high among my favourites: young women having scary adventures in dark fantasy settings, without romance as a defining feature. When it is done even better than Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor series, there is really just one question: why did I wait so long to reread it?

I shall end this review here, because I need to go find my copy of Lirael and clear my schedule. If you need me, wait until next week. Until then, I will be busy devouring the rest of this series.

Update: You can read my review of Lirael by clicking here.

Review: Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’

★★☆☆☆

Published in 1980, The Name of the Rose is a modern book which plays dress-up with the trappings of Medieval Europe. In this historical fiction novel, Umberto Eco tries less to evoke the violence and mysticism of the early 1300s than to pretend his work is a relic from that distant past. Part murder mystery, part biblical thesis, this book wrestles with the distinction between zealotry and faith, a battle which is presented through a strange menagerie of monks and clergymen.

A novice Benedictine monk, Adso, accompanies his friar master, William of Baskerville, to a wealthy monastery in northern Italy, famous for its labyrinthine library. Their mission? To investigate whether the Franciscan order are guilty of heresy. Given that the era is one in which heretics and holy martyrs were burned at the stake (often with little to distinguish between them), the matter is a source of considerable tension for all concerned. Despite the promise of confessions extracted through torture and portents of Luciferian witchcraft, however, this aspect of the narrative proves rather more scholarly than spicy.

Fortunately, things are livened up by the grisly death of a resident monk. Then another. And one more. Halfway through what can only be described as a bad week, Adso and William are knee-deep in the unholy conspiracies and internal feuds that threaten to consume the monastery. There is hate in the house of God. Murder. And perhaps it is best not to comment on the monks’ supposed celibacy.

“Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but toward hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him … These things I know, Ubertino; I also have belonged to those groups of men who believe they can produce the truth with white-hot iron. Well, let me tell you, the white heat of truth comes from another flame.”

It is easy to view William and Adso as the Medieval answer to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Unfortunately, our brothers in Christ lack the essential element of bromance that makes Holmes and Watson such an iconic pairing. Though Eco tries to paint William as a worldly sage who understands, through experience, the grey realm between good and evil, both friar and novice are guilty of a kind of selective blindness, in particular towards the sordidness of William’s history as an inquisitor.

There is no saying for certain, but I believe William is an authorly self-insertion, and a rather shameless one. The narrative brims with so many self-indulgent discourses and philosophical musings that at times the plot feels like nothing more than a vessel for mini-essays and meanders. ‘Commend my extensive knowledge of extremely niche topics’ it all but cries, as the characters spend pages debating the finer points of scripture and Latin theology. Naturally, William always has the last word. Forget fawning admiration. If I stood in Adso’s shoes, my questions would be less concerned with William’s sources, and more interested in what made the man such an insufferable know-it-all.

With each murder, the monastery descends closer to a state of chaos. It is a rather fatalistic plot, since William and Adso’s efforts do little to prevent events from taking their course. The book is technically a ‘whodunnit’, but I am loath to use the term – there are quickly too few suspects left alive to leave the matter in doubt.

“The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”

As is exemplified in the quotes above, The Name of the Rose is indisputably well-written, so it is a shame I found the overall book lesser than average. There is something so half-hearted about the murder mystery that I think Eco might as well have gone ahead and written a series of theological essays instead – clearly, this is the subject matter that truly interested him. Also, no matter your stance on explicit content in literature, it is difficult to argue that sex and violence are inherently dull. So when a book offers a death per day, scandals at every turn, yet still manages to bore its reader, it seems fair to accuse the author of failing to use the weapons at hand.

I read the English translation, which may have a few things to answer for, but overall I found The Name of the Rose long, limp and patchy, a work of fiction that ignores many vital elements of storytelling. It is a pity, because there is much here which on face value is right up my street. Even the vaguest Medieval setting is an enticing prospect to me as a reader, and I find the gory history of the Christian church fascinating. There is cursory exploration of the sexism and rampant homophobia which influenced the doctrines of the era, but topics of wider interest are often abandoned in favour of pedantic, petty debates about scriptural details that remain as obscure as they are uninteresting.

All in all, The Name of the Rose promises a great deal, only to leave much to be desired. As I flicked through on my search for quotes to include in this review, I felt again a wistful sense of admiration for the glowing prose, which is certainly the book’s best feature. Given the enviable wealth of knowledge on display, I think this is a text which ultimately falls victim to its own pomposity.

Review: Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

★★★☆☆

3.5 stars. It’s officially spooky season, so what better time to delve into a classic Halloween read? Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a 260-page dark fantasy novel, set in a sleepy Illinois town the weekend before Halloween.

Days away from their shared 14th birthday, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are inseparable friends. Though they live next door to one another and there is little to distinguish between their life experiences, the boys’ personalities form a stark contrast. Will is a golden youth, still fresh with the innocence of childhood, whilst Jim is a darker, wilder character, guided by a streak of inner chaos that waits only for the chance to manifest. Naturally, when the autumn winds blow a mysterious carnival into town, Jim cannot resist its dangerous allure. Ignoring Will’s deep sense of foreboding, the boys go exploring after dark, and discover that a circus of horrors has descended upon Greentown.

Bradbury had a gift for description, and used it unsparingly in the writing of this text. Something Wicked is, in all ways, an autumnal book, evoking the swirl of orange leaves and the cool air of starless nights with uncommon lyricism. The season of the setting reflects the weight of endings. For Will and Jim, the end of the blessed ignorance that makes children fearless. For Will’s father, Charles, the cool breath of impending old age. Something Wicked might read in some ways like young YA, but make no mistake. This book is less coming-of-age than philosophical parable about the evil that comes from fearing the great unknowns of death.

Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles – breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.

‘Poetic’ is an easy word to use when reviewing a book that utilises beautiful language, but Bradbury’s writing strikes truer to the actual meaning of the word, because Something Wicked truly reads more like a poem than prose. The story is full of striking images and creative turns of phrase, but it remains as a whole mysterious and dream-like. There is something wispy and elusive about it that I could never quite close my hands around.

Fans of Stephen King will quickly recognise Bradbury as a major influence on his style and themes. Something Wicked is a root from which a host of other stories about ordinary American children confronting the forces of darkness grew, and deserves its place as a cornerstone of modern fantasy. Also, if you have read The Dark Tower, it is not difficult to draw the conclusion that Bradbury’s misty, fable-like tone was a key source of inspiration.

Truth be told, small-town children learning that the world is a big, scary place are not my favourite type of character, so I think a portion of my lukewarm reaction to this book stems from personal taste. Also, whilst the prose is the main selling point, Bradbury’s abstract quirkiness takes some unpacking. There are individual scenes in Something Wicked that ramp up some serious creep factor, but overall it is the confusing, kooky writing that held my attention, often at the expense of the novel’s spookiness.

Review: Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’

★★★☆☆

Theodore Decker is just 13 when the fabric of his life is unmade. A terrorist bombing at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art leaves our protagonist motherless, and a fine art thief of Interpol proportions. Fleeing the dead and the dying in the wake of the explosion, a thoroughly traumatised Theo makes off with Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, a painting of profound historic and artistic significance that will, over the next decade, shatter his moral compass and destroy his life.

At 860 pages, Donna Tartt’s third novel is a sumptuous feast of a read, and entirely too long for its own good. This is the sort of book that could have said twice as much had it used half the words, an overwritten bloater that requires digestion in multiple sittings, lest its cloying richness might trigger the reader’s gag reflex. Set aside the egotism and penchant for navel-gazing, however, and The Goldfinch is a compelling portrait of the destructive power of traumatic grief.

A descent into substance abuse and skulduggery galore, this novel is a coming-of-age set within an antiheroic crime drama. In a nutshell, Theo navigates the psychological chaos of adolescence and early adulthood whilst wrestling with the profundity of loss and the brittle immorality of fine art.

Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.

There is an unashamed decadence to this book that no one besides a critically established author could hope to get away with. I have not read either of Tartt’s other novels, but I do not doubt their success, because only success could have paved the way for a book such as this. Like an obnoxious reveller, The Goldfinch embodies a kind of shameless excess. There is no part of it, not one sentence, that can be described as understated.

In places it is delightful to read, a literary answer to the experience of fine dining, but overall it is too much. Tartt does not stop at making the reader almost smell the beeswax polish and walnut varnish of Hobie’s antique store. She slams their face into the woodgrain, forcing a visceral awareness of Theo’s surroundings, everywhere he goes. Though as a writing technique I think it is technically impressive, the prose feels overdone and repetitive.

The Goldfinch is a Pulitzer Prize winner (2014), so it seems fair to say that Tartt’s writing impressed the right people. If I’m being honest, the extent of this book’s accolades is a bit of a mystery to me. I can only assume 2014 was a quiet year. With its morals and messages unsubtle from the outset, and a 50-page summary ending that tells us, literally ‘what this book was about’, it is easy to accuse The Goldfinch of trying too hard to nail everything home, ultimately leaving the reader with nothing to think about.

If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or – like Boris – is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

Given the damaging and depressing experiences that Theo goes through on his way to adulthood, I do not think it would be fair to expect him to turn out a wholesome or particularly likeable hero. I would expect him to be interesting, however, and this conflicts with the fact that our boy is essentially a passenger in his own life. His destiny and philosophy are entirely dictated by the more interesting persons who surround him.

I did enjoy this book’s presentation of brotherhood and found family. Theo’s wildly different friendships with sweet, cerebral Andy and the loose cannon that is Boris succeed in expressing the adolescent mind as a place of deep and meaningful understanding without losing the specific undercurrents that give relationships from this era of life their unique frisson and feeling.

The thing is, I just know I’ve seen this sort of book done much better elsewhere. The unhealthy friendships and brink-of-oblivion substance abuse that this book portrays strongly reminded me of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxion, which explores the annihilating force of dissociative grief in far greater depth that The Goldfinch ever manages to plumb.

To sum, Tartt’s novel has its charms, but I think this questionable masterpiece is lesser, messier, and simply not on the same level as the famous painting it takes its title from.

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)

Review: Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’

★★★☆☆

The struggle was very real with this one, but at last! In the realm of 1000 pages, Bleak House is an absolute monster of a novel, and easily one of the most challenging books I have ever read. Because of the laboured density of the writing, as well as one of the slowest moving plots I have ever encountered, I would go so far as to say that it makes many an even weightier tome – including War and Peace – feel like casual reading.

A contemporary novel at its publication, Bleak House explores a number of themes topical to its era. Chief among them is the injustice of the justice system in Victorian England. Three genteel orphans, Esther, Ada and Richard, become the wards of Mr John Jarndyce, the owner of the eponymous house and one party of the infamous legal battle, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. A regular fixture in the Court of Chancery, the case forms the backdrop of the narrative, grinding along seemingly without hope of resolution.

The narrative flits between first and third person. Esther narrates her story, and we encounter the various persons whose affairs are tangled up or tangentially involved in the case. Some say Bleak House is Dickens’ best work. To be frank, I will never count myself among them. Though I am by no means a Dickens buff, I found A Tale of Two Cities far more moving and meaningful than this dark, dreary read.

“And I am bored to death with it. Bored to death with this place, bored to death with my life, bored to death with myself.”

Of all the long, stuffy Victorian novels, Bleak House has to be one of the longest and the stuffiest of them all, and that from the very outset – you know it’s going to be a tough read when the entire first chapter is a description of some fog.

Though I hesitated to rate this book at all, I do find myself reluctant to give it less than three stars, because what it sets out to do, it certainly achieves. To demonstrate the torturously bureaucratic and long-winded process involved in trying to win justice from the Victorian justice system, Dickens wrote a novel that is itself torturously long-winded.

In its lighter moments, Bleak House does benefit from moments of genuine tenderness, and the witty characterisations of the secondary cast offer a definite vein of humour. However, there were few relationships I could muster any lasting interest for. Though many of the side characters are amusing or memorable, I found it difficult to hold the faith for brief flashes of striking insight and the occasional flare of melodrama in the boring fogginess that characterises the body of this text.

I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.

Appreciating a book and enjoying it are two different things, so whilst the novel is undeniably a clever, complex narrative, one that showcases the author’s technical writing ability, I cannot bring myself to like it. Blasphemy, I know, but I sometimes find Dickens’ narrative voice patronising and tedious, and this book exemplifies that. Also, though many characteristics of the author’s work are an embodiment of the Victorian style, this text summoned a weariness in me that the works of Anthony Trollope and William Thackery have yet to touch.

Studying Dickens when I was still in school – with a focus on the rather aptly named Hard Times – left me wondering what the fuss was about. In more recent years, I softened to the assumption this was the result of my own youth, and that my appreciation would deepen over time as my reading tastes matured. However, as I revisit Dickens as an adult, I realise this has yet to happen.

I confess, it will be a long while before I venture back to this author’s substantial catalogue, even in the name of cultivating my palette. However, given the strength of general acclaim, I think it makes no material difference should I hold a suspicion that Dickens, man of the people though he was, is simply not for everyone.

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