My reading of 2016

 

I’ve got an account on Goodreads, and as you may know, every year you can set yourself a goal of how many books you want to read. I fell well short of mine (4 out of 12) but the ones I did complete I’ll briefly talk about:

5064Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett

I actually finished Pillars of the Earth at the very end of 2015. Both it and World Without End are about a minor fictional English town called Kingsbridge during the middle ages. Pillars follows a cast of characters of varying backgrounds whose lives become connected in different ways. The story has at its core the struggle of building a cathedral in Kingsbridge, but there’s a lot more meat on this bone. It’s an epic story of love, hate, intrigue, politics and spans a lifetime.

World Without End takes place some 200 years after Pillars, has an entirely new cast of characters who have a loose connection to the original cast (some are descendants of some key characters from the original).

What immediately struck me is how nice and long these books are. They present a classic immersive reading experience, where you just dive into a different world and into the lives of other people. It’s excellent escapism. But there’s more to it. I really appreciated the light, almost simplistic prose of Follett. He manages to write ~1000 page novels that are breezy to read. Not much time is spent on bloated, flowery descriptions of places or people, you only really get information that feels relevant which makes the descriptions you do get more interesting. There is a tendency to describe buildings and explain architectural problem solving in more detail, but that’s kind of a big part of the story. If you can’t be bothered, don’t worry as it doesn’t happen so often as to hurt the pacing.

While there are some obvious main characters, Follett really is interested in telling the story from the viewpoints of vastly different people. You get chapters from the protagonists and antagonists. Especially some of the chapters from the eyes of the villains are excellent, dark explorations of their world views without getting gratuitous or cartoonish. He paints a picture of a world and age that is inherently harsh thanks to the very foundations of society.

Thus, both PotE and WWE are both good for epic storytelling and some light learning about the middle ages. I won’t presume that they’re historically accurate but that’s not the claim of the writer either. More than a dry text book though, maybe there is a greater value to books like these in how they manage to emotionally invest readers into the lives and challenges people faced in the past. One gets a good workout in terms of empathy and understanding.

29069989Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

I’ll just include my goodreads review:

Harry Potter is probably my favorite series of books. It’s not just because they accompanied my adolescence. I’ve since read and re-read them. I’ve listened to the Stephen Fry audiobooks, even read them in another language. Every time I’ve loved the experience.

I say all this to put into context my cautious anticipation of what The Cursed Child might hold. It was clear from the start that this isn’t a novel, not even really written by J.K.Rowling herself (though the plot is her creation). It’s a play first and foremost, but obviously it needed to be available in book form, and even this was in doubt when the play was first announced. It needed to be viewed rather than read, they said. After reading it, I can see why.

My review and discussion of the book will contain spoilers, so for those who haven’t read this yet I’ll say this:
If you enjoyed Harry Potter, know that this isn’t like the other Harry Potter books. It isn’t even <i>about</i> Harry, but about his son Albus. This story offers you another chance to delve into Rowling’s universe. If this excites you, then go ahead. Just don’t expect the familiar and wonderful format of a child going through a whole school year in Hogwarts. It’s a much different pace, also because it’s far shorter than a normal Harry Potter book. It’s a play after all. And there is the other reservation. Because it’s a play script, it literally consists of nothing but dialog. The story is broken into very short acts (2, 3 pages), with a little description as to the location and time the act takes place. It means you need to be more imaginative than usual. There’s very little to go on, because you were supposed to see it all with you eyes acted out in front of you, with all the stage presentation that entails. If you can deal with this, enjoy! If you are doubtful, then prepare to lower you expectations.

SPOILERS
The Cursed Child taken on its own merit is a very interesting continuation of the story. We are 20 years after the end of Deathly Hallows. I do enjoy a good time jump. It gives a story a feeling of scope and allows for the characters to change and be a little different from what you remember. Harry is a stressed out ministry employee hunting down the remnants of Voldemort’s following. Ron works for his brother’s magical joke shop. And Hermione is Minister for Magic! Of course she is. The biggest surprise was Draco’s story. He married and lost his wife to illness and is left with his young son Scorpio.

We get to know him and Albus in particular. Becoming friends (yep!) on the Hogwarts Express much like Harry and Ron did back in the day. Stuff like this made me happy, though it felt distantly fan-servicey. Anyway, the banter between the two is great. Scorpio is not at all like first year Draco. Nor is Albus much like Harry. It elegantly shows how children are often not like their parents because they grew up in much different environments to their parents’.

The story revolves around Albus’ issues from having a famous father and feeling pressurized to be like him. It’s very much a story about parentage, which was new. At times I was frustrated and even pissed off at Harry’s treatment of his son, though it was understandable. It must be hard being desperate trying to figure out your own child, to feel such a large disconnect.

On to the plot itself. I liked the first half of quickly going over the years of Albus going to Hogwarts. One can see the progression of Albus’ disconnect and thickening of his friendship with Scorpio over the years, and all comes to a head when he learns about Amos Diggory’s grief over his son. It was a bit hamfisted how Albus could possibly think that time travelling and changing the past so drastically could be something he should do. Apparently he though that by undoing one of his father’s failings (which it really wasn’t) he could prove himself to be as worthy as Harry? I don’t get it, and this catalyst for the plot felt very forced. It is my greatest issue with the story.

But anyway, so the plot turns into a time travelling story. We get to go back to the Triwizard Tournament, Godric’s Hollow the night Harry’s parents died, a dark timeline version of the present where Voldemort won and Ron and Hermione are resistance fighters (though the order was broken) and even a very slightly changed present where the good won but all our heroes live unhappy lives.

In theory, I think using the time turners as a plot device is a clever idea. Time turners are a huge danger and hold the potential for a lot of story material Rowling could work with. The resulting time travel extravaganza felt a bit fan fictiony though. It’s nice and all to go back and relive all our fun memories of reading the previous books, and it has a clear nostalgic value, but in the end I’d have liked to see a more normal expansion of the story and world. But without Voldemort, there isn’t the same kind of conflict and I get that such a story doesn’t really merit being written. Anything she’d come up with would be relentlessly compared to the original 7 books. I get why Rowling did what she did. It’s a fun read, and probably a brilliant play to watch. It isn’t nearly as entertaining as the original books though, and even having gone into this with lowered expectations, I can’t help but feel disappointed.
/SPOILERS

10664113A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons by G.R.R. Martin

Aaand another straight inclusion of my goodreads review:

Having just read A Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons for the second time each, my view has changed somewhat. It’s good to re-read these dense, large novels after a time because you’ll be free of the desire to push on to the end. Especially these two sequels to the incredible Storm of Swords, because they are about the ramifications and fallout of the events from that book. How do the Lannisters cope and move on from the deaths of Joffrey and Tywin? What happens in the North after the murder of Robb Stark? Is Daenerys able to be a ruler and not just a conqueror?

GRRM said once that he always wanted to know what King Aragorn’s tax policy would be, and how he’d deal with the remnants of Sauron’s forces, whether the alliance of Middle-Earth would systematically engage in genocide against the orks, urukhs and so on. Tolkien tells a great tale in The Lord of the Rings, of conflict and adventure. But GRRM’s ambitions of writing fantasy are even greater. He made it his mission to bind the fantastic with the realistic, and these two books are the natural, even necessary result of that.

I didn’t rate them as highly as the third book, because they weren’t as exciting, the plot would move at a far slower pace. There are very few things happening here that could compare to the Red Wedding, Purple Wedding, Tyrion’s trial or his escape, or the mic-drop reveal of Lady Stoneheart.

But these books aren’t about that. They are about pulling back and zooming in on how the dust settles. It’s further world-building as we get introduced to new places, new characters with the love for detail that GRRM is known for. If you can appreciate the subtlety and enjoy just being in this world, of learning more about its people then you will greatly enjoy these two books.

I have to admit though that even with all this, I did get fatigued at times. These books demand attention and keeping the characters in your mind can become a chore, especially when it doesn’t get broken up by big high-stakes resolutions. Some sub plots feel very low-stakes and therefore don’t feel they deserve to command the attention as much as say, the struggles of Eddard Stark in the first book. There are pacing issues, and the books could’ve probably been streamlined a good bit.

But it feels churlish to complain of having too much of a good thing. GRRM’s prose is beautiful as ever, and sometimes his turns of phrase took me aback. He wields language like a brush and is a master of evoking these beautiful pictures in your mind.

As far as I can see, A Song of Ice and Fire is by FAR the greatest fantasy series of recent times and I’m eagerly waiting for the next part.

In conclusion

Yes, I didn’t get anywhere near my goal of 12 books, but 3 of the 4 I read were big fat novels that are 2, 3 times as long as the average book. World Without End was great because it continued the formula set by the original while including a few twists that kept it all very fresh. I was then underwhelmed by Harry Potter’s final book, though to be fair it really wasn’t mean to be read. My main problems lie with the actual plotline though, so that’s a bummer.

And to briefly mention my re-read of the 4th and 5th book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, it was good to refresh my memory of the actual story as opposed to the TV shows adaptation in the last 3 seasons. It was great to get into these books again and to reaffirm that yes, the books really are the better, richer way to experience this story. I’m now properly hyped for Winds of Winter.

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