Sunday, 4 January 2015

Reading list - 2014

The Dreaming Tree - C.J. Cherryh

I was prompted to re-read this book by its inclusion in the bibliography for GURPS Celtic Myth. It's included there under modern fiction "likely to inspire GMs" and it certainly lives up to that! In fact my reading of it was some slowed by the need to have a notebook at hand at all times.

If I had to sum it into a single word though that would be "atmosphere" - impossible to convey in a short review, especially by a writer such as myself. Suffice to say that Cherryh's sidhe are nothing like Tolkien's elves, and at times the feeling of impending doom makes the book hard to read.

The one flaw is the ending, which left me feeling cheated of the denouement that the books had been building up to. I note from Wikipedia that my copy has a revised ending, which Cherryh felt more satisfying than the original - some day I must find the original and see how I feel about that.

I'm still very glad to have revisited it though - if I ever do get to develop a Norse / Celtic / Sidhe campaign, and it's even 10% as atmospheric as this book, then I'd consider it a resounding success.

The Hydrogen Sonata - Iain M Banks

A good Banks book, but not amongst his best, although that still makes it pretty damn good by most writer's standards.

It's an enjoyable tale, with some surprising twists, but at times the plot armour shows through somewhat. And in places the Culture characters are so smug that you find yourself hoping they'll lose, but I don't think I'm giving too much a way by revealing that they don't... 

It also suffers slightly from uneven pacing - it seems to me a hundred pages or so could have been edited from its length without the story suffering.

I tend to take gaming lessons away from most non-work-related books I read and this is no exception. Firstly it reminds me why I steer clear of sci-fi in RPGs - the breadth of imagination required on even the mundane areas of world-building is a very high hurdle, and authors like Banks put most other works to shame on this score. And equally on the wargaming front, as this story shows it's hard to give much credence to any two space faring races to being close enough in technical level that a straight table top battle could occur - asymmetric warfare seems the only plausible type to me. Even for example in the 40K universe, which has a good backstory as to why the Imperium is a non-technical space faring civilisation, it's a bit hard to swallow that any two factions are effectively equal on the battlefield (I know, I know, stop over-thinking and enjoy the game!).

The Explorer - James Smythe

Another incursion into my reading list from my wife's book group, and a story only one of the group members enjoyed. I did as well - the plot twist right at the beginning almost makes the book worthwhile by itself, but from there it gets even better, although the claustrophobic atmosphere makes for difficult reading at times. Another down side is that none of the characters are sympathetic, which makes it a hard book to enjoy.

Good exercise for the brain though, once all is revealed you're left with the feeling you should go back and read it all again, to see it all in yet another light.

Apparently there's a sequel - hopefully I'll get to that this year.

The Forest House - Marion Zimmer Bradley

Another book from my Celtic reading list, although perhaps less distinctly so. Like Kay's Sarantium, it's a nice touch that it crosses the line from historical / romantic to fantastic in that the druids and priestesses mix learning (e.g. medicine) with actual magic.

Bradley conveys the period with some clever devices such as focussing on a few mundane features of the setting, such as the furnishings. It's interesting to me to contrast this with Tremayne's Seventh Trumpet - Bradley with (I assume) far less scholarship, but more talent, succeeds much better in portraying a distinctive view of the time.

From a story rather than atmosphere point of view the book has a few grating moments - the central relationship between Eilan and Gaius rings rather false at times, with their inner voices seeming rather forced into conveying a romance which somehow isn't supported by the rest of the story.

I'll come back to finish the series at some point, but it's not top of my list.

Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch

Another from my wife's book club, and my favourite read of the year. A very British take on the supernaturalist genre which seems to be in vogue at the moment.

Peter Grant, a rookie bobby, sees a ghost while on guard at a murder scene, which abruptly changes his career path. The book mixes police procedural with mystery and elements of horror, its tongue slightly in its cheek but avoiding decending into farce.

The plot makes use of a central deception, of the sort I know intellectually as a reader of a mystery that I should be looking for, but which I unfailingly fall for. When the deception is revealed at the end you're forced to give a wry smile while mentally revising the entire story, but at the same time this always feels like a bit of a cheat to me, since as the reader you're so dependent on the author for information. The same devise could easily be transposed to an RPG scenario - on the one hand the players do have the advantage that they can ask the GM questions, conversely (assuming no railroads) the GM doesn't have the author's assurance that they'll be able to dangle all the right clues in front of their audience. Not a new conundrum since someone was good enough to invent Call of Cthulhu - in fact I remember John over at Dreams in the Lich House having an interesting series on the subject...

Elric of Melnibone, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate - Michael Moorcock

A flurry of interest in the Stormbringer RPG on G+ prompted me to dig out the novels I have, and fill the gaps in my collection. Back in the day I read through the Corum books, but could never really get on with Elric.

Second time around I'm finding them much more readable, overshadowed slightly by the dimly remembered precis from the RPG - it's not going to turn out alright in the end... But they're good, short, enjoyable yarns, and a good antidote to Conan (as apparently their author intended).

Obligatory RPG observations -
  • Sketching out Melnibonean society as an author is a great feat of imagination, but in many ways far simpler for the author than the GM to convey. What sort of dishes are there at the banquet anyway (for example)?
  • Elric is burning through his ancestors' ancient pacts with various elemental lords at a prodigious rate...
  • Definitely not an "everyman" novel - everyone's a named warrior, a prince, dragon lord or duke (although the same accusation could be levelled at Lord of the Rings, for example). I'm not getting much feeling of the world as seen by mere mortals - although enough to know I wouldn't want to live there!

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