Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Bookcase Of Fear #8: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Quick note to my scant number of readers.  (Ah, lost, are you?  The loo's over there...)  Having finally sorted out my laptop's DVD player, I'll shortly be returning to some DVD reviews.  By which I mean, largely, Doctor Who reviews.  Just thought I should mention it.

Right then!  Have at you, bookcase!

The Last Dragonslayer
By Jasper Fforde

Knowing very little about Jasper Fforde, my first reaction to The Last Dragonslayer (other than “Thanks for the birthday present, Robert”) was being slightly underwhelmed.  A novel about dragons, magic and wizards?  All of that’s been done.  Well, I needn’t have worried.  The Last Dragonslayer takes admittedly very familiar elements and puts them to work in a sharp, charming plot.  Against the odds, it actually feels very original.

It’s set in a parallel world, roughly contemporary, but with magic and dragons as a part of daily life.  I enjoyed the lived-in, clapped-out-ness of magic and the way people deal with it: they use magic to do their plumbing, and have to fill out endless forms to make sure it’s all accounted for, because magic is limited.  I’m sometimes put off by parallel world stories, as I feel at a conscious distance from the worlds they create, but this one very quickly, very skilfully set out its world and made it feel familiar.  I was reminded of Harry Potter, specifically the way those books never really reconciled how magical and non-magical people could co-exist.  I think this one does it better.

It’s the story of Jennifer Strange, a nearly-sixteen-year-old orphan who finds herself running a magical odd-jobs company and looking after its assortment of wizards and witches, all of whom have varying talents and sensitive egos.  Jennifer is a wonderful creation, believably young yet wearisomely mature.  The plot revolves around a prophecy.  (I know, they’re overdone as well, but this one is well handled and isn’t dragged out for half a dozen books.)  The prophecy concerns the last dragon known to exist and Jennifer’s part in its death.  And really, I don’t want to go into it too much – the plot is very tidy and it keeps moving and you should discover it all for yourself.  The book’s short; I don’t want to spoil it.

Fforde’s book is funny without hitting you over the head about it, thoughtful without feeling like a soapbox, and has an endearingly fresh perspective on its fantasy tropes.  I enjoyed it, am glad there are more books in the series, and encourage you to investigate.  Race you!

The Green Mile
By Stephen King

Another Stephen King book bites the dust.  Written as a serial in 1996, The Green Mile is the memoir of Paul Edgecomb – once the head guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, E Wing, home of the electric chair.  (And a grim, lime-coloured floor.)  It concerns John Coffey, a mysterious black man convicted of murdering two young girls, and it’s as grim as a Death Row story ought to be, but with some magic and humour mixed in as well.

Being six volumes rather than one, the book has an episodic and repetitive nature, sprinkling recaps throughout just in case you’re joining mid-way.  (In an omnibus, however, this is no longer a problem.)  On the plus side, the repetition (unintentionally?) chimes with the advanced age of the narrator.  King’s usual habit of casually dipping into the future also genuinely seems like something you’d find in a memoir.  However, the framing device – Paul writing his recollections in a rest home, as he avoids a transparently evil orderly – doesn’t add much to the story.  I was generally keen to get back to the events of 1932.

As for the main cut-and-thrust of the book, it’s compelling and has plenty of momentum.  The chapters are short; you can almost feel Stephen King hammering them out to meet his deadlines.  He mentions in the Foreword and Afterword that he enjoyed the challenge, and the change of pace.  It felt like a quick read.

If there’s a major criticism, it’s a lack of depth.  I saw the (excellent) Frank Darabont movie before reading this, and there’s really not a great deal more to be found on the page, besides a more downbeat conclusion.  The characters are all suitably good or evil, and while some are a bit of both, a few border on archetypal.  John Coffey, besides his obvious and deliberate Jesus Christ initials, seems like a textbook example of Spike Lee’s patented “magic negro” character.  Paul’s rest home nemesis, meanwhile, comes from a noticeably dry well marked “evil orderlies”.

It’s an equally sweet and grisly yarn, but it didn’t leave much of an impression.  The green mile (between the cells and the electric chair) might be long, but the shadow of King’s earlier work, Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, seems a little longer.

The Vampire’s Holiday
By Willis Hall

Willis Hall wrote a lot of children’s books about Henry Hollins, a boy seemingly forever on holiday with his parents.  They’ve encountered all sorts of oddities, including a dinosaur and an inflatable shop, but there’s a series within the series about Count Alucard – Dracula’s harmless, vegetarian descendant.  (Not to be confused with Count Duckula, who springs suddenly to mind.)

The Vampire’s Holiday is the second book in the series, and it’s a lot like the first.  Alucard must contend with the prejudices and fears of a small town, before ultimately fleeing.  Henry rallies to help him – he’s the only person with the common sense to give him a chance – while the townspeople, in particular the mayor, use the vampire business to their own ends.  One of the things I loved about The Last Vampire (and Hall’s other books) is the way every character has a point of view, even the animals.  They all have their own individual (and usually light-hearted) dramas going on, and that makes the story a lot more colourful.

Unfortunately there’s very little plot.  Alucard winds up in England (after his coffin is thrown overboard, although he seemed to be heading in that direction anyway), and he never says exactly why he went there.  I’m assuming it’s a holiday, re the title, but Henry asks him why at one point and he never gets around to answering.  He spends the rest of the book trying to get away, while the people of Scarcombe variously panic, overreact and take advantage of the situation.  (Well, wasn’t it obvious that was going to happen?)  In the middle of all this is Alucard, who’s terribly nice but scarcely interacts with anyone, and Henry, who despite being the hero of Hall’s books has no particular personality.  I can only assume younger readers were encouraged to project themselves onto him, because he’s the least interesting character in every scene, including the ones with his parents.

Still, it’s a funny, friendly story, with a lovely attitude to pre-judging others; there’s some great stuff from the point of view of some captive wolves.  The locals are all suitably amusing, if rather familiar; Hall can’t resist working in a bit of political satire with the mayor.  It’s a nice read, but after two books it’s a shame Henry didn’t try to change a few minds, rather than simply helping Alucard to run away until his next instalment.  Also, the story ignores the end of the last book, where Alucard had some intention of living with Henry.  His only friend in the world, you’d think that would remain his Plan A.

Doctor Who
Book One: Shock Tactic
By Lawrence Miles

This is pretty ambitious for a Doctor Who novel.  It’s spread over two books, features two Doctors (Paul McGann and Jon Pertwee), and wraps up the complicated story of Sam Jones, a companion invented just for the BBC books range.  I’ve only read Book One so far.  How’s it going?

Put it this way: if I didn’t already own Book Two, I wouldn’t be buying it.  Heck, if that were the case, I wouldn’t have finished reading Book One.

So far (and since this is a full-priced book, it’s fair to pause and reflect), Interference is a mess, decorated with smug window-dressing.  This bit’s in italics!  This bit’s in script!  The chapter titles have funny sub-headings!  Ho, ho.  The prose is often thoughtful, but it’s an absolute headache keeping up with the various plot strands – and being only Book One of Two, surprise!  None of them go anywhere.

Let’s see: there’s an international arms conference in London, where aliens are selling black goo called “Cold” which can teleport and/or harm you depending on the plot.  (NB: This isn't the "real" Cold.)  The aliens are “the Remote”, which means they make decisions based on television signals.  (I don’t know if I’ve understood that correctly.)  Sam investigates this, while the Doctor’s other companion, Fitz, is lost in time somewhere.  He’s trying to get to know the Faction Paradox, a group of evil Time Lord somethings who are behind everything, ever.

One of the Doctor’s previous companions is here to help: it’s Sarah Jane Smith!  (And K9!  Yay!)  Alas, the Doctor is in a Saudi Arabian prison being tortured, talking to himself across time and writing maths equations in blood.  Meanwhile, Sam is spirited away to the Remote home-world (I think?), and Sarah meets a helpful Ogron – those muscle-for-hire aliens from the Classic series.  This is the best bit, by light years.  Then cut randomly to the Third Doctor (and a younger, far less interesting Sarah Jane) trapped in humanity’s final resting place: a Wild West parody called Dust, where there’s a freak-show possibly involving Time Lords.  Meanwhile, the Doctor – the main one, Paul McGann – recounts this entire story later to someone, somewhere, for some reason.  Eventually things grind to a halt because that’s all the pages you’re getting, buster.

As the first part of a story, this is just awful.  The characters are mysterious to the point where they’re barely even there.  The plot is overly busy, but it doesn’t coalesce into an actual story at any point.  I don’t know what “Cold” has to do with anything, or why “the Remote” are worth so much exposition, or what the blithery feck is so interesting about Faction Paradox – no, please, devote another dozen paragraphs to how their cult operates, it’s all gold.  I don’t know where Fitz is, and I don’t know what’s going on with Sam.  (If you haven’t read all the Eighth Doctor books up to this point, worse luck.  And welcome to my world.)  After 309 pages, I don’t care, Book Two or no Book Two, your story should have come together already.  We should know what’s at stake.  By the end of Book One, however, Interference is still total spaghetti.

I loved Miles’s earlier book, Alien Bodies.  A gem of a Doctor Who story, it had bags of imagination and wit.  There’s little in here I even recognise as Doctor Who.  An arms conference?  A Saudi Arabian prison cell?  Even the Doctor, both of him heavily featured on the front and back covers, barely registers.  It’s 309 pages of punishingly dull non-story.  After that, Part Two had better be the best book ever written.  No pressure.

1 comment:

  1. Hahaha, it's funny when you hate things. Although your kinder, more thoughtful reviews of the three books before the last one are good too.