“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

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“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

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“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

“Sussex Folk Tales” by Michael O’Leary (2013)

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sussex folk“When I was asked to tell stories at a place called Gumber Bothy, I thought it must be somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.”

I suppose that most people have a fondness for wherever they were brought up. Or, at the least, a fondness that means they can insult it but heaven help an outsider who tries. I happen to hail from Sussex, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful and interesting county (or rather, pair of counties, as it is divided into East and West) in the British Isles. Home to Rudyard Kipling, Simon Cowell, Virginia Woolf, Sir Patrick Moore among others, it also holds the claim to originating thirty variety of apple, and being the last place Lord Lucan was seen before he disappeared.

But Sussex is old, being one of the first places colonised in the British Isles as it used to be linked to the continent. It’s where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 (near the town of Battle, not Hastings), and where the Home Guard of Dad’s Army were ready to fight on the beaches in World War Two. It has had a long history of mystery, magic and a fair bit of smuggling. Over time, stories have laced the landscape, from Gatwick Airport in the north and Brighton in the south, from West Wittering in the west, to Rye in the east. This book fills us in on those stories.

Moving around the county in a widdershins direction (anti-clockwise), O’Leary tells us many strange legends and myths. He is a professional storyteller by trade and argues that he’s not a folklorist, so cannot give explanations for anything that happens; he’s just interested in the stories themselves. He’s clearly passionate about his subject too, and constantly professes to us that he isn’t lying, because what would he have to gain from that? I’m prepared to accept all the stories as true.

It’s hard to say how many of them are well known to the wider world, but being from around here, I knew of a few of them. There’s Devil’s Dyke, a valley dug by Satan himself in an attempt to flood the county’s churches. He was bested by Old Nan, an elderly woman who lived in Amberley Swamp and turns up in numerous tales. She tricked him into fleeing before he’d finished, leaving behind an unfinished furrow and clods of Earth that became the South Downs and the Isle of Wight. Old Nan was known to be too, as I live near Nan Tuck’s Lane, a forested road where her shade still haunts and there’s a patch of ground among the trees where nothing ever grows. I was also aware of the Piltdown Man, who is not only a famous archaeological hoax, but also a strange Frankenstein-like creature who can catch you unawares as you drive through the village of Piltdown.

But there were so many other stories I had no knowledge of. There’s Lord Moon, the creepy moonlight trickster who leads people to their doom; Elynge Ellet, the frog-like demon who lives in marshland and steals your favoured possessions; Daniel Ratcliffe, the King of the Cats who walks on his hind legs and has no time for humans who are stunned by his ability to speak. And that’s before we get into the numerous knuckers (dragons) and pharisees (fairies) that seem to populate every lake and hill respectively within the county borders.

O’Leary also gives details on other stories that are well known but perhaps not usually linked to Sussex. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, the ship doomed to never arrive at shore, begins in Sussex when a man who killed his brother is sent to sea for penance, and Little Bo Peep is said to have originated somewhere in East Sussex. We learn why the Long Man of Wilmington is lacking in the private department (and why the Cerne Abbas Giant seems to be packing spare), what lives down in the Mixon Hole, and discover that folklore is still developing and growing with the new legend of Trevor’s Boots.

I may be biased, but when I stood last week looking out across the South Downs from atop the Seven Sisters cliffs (they’re probably the ones you mistakenly think of when you think of the White Cliffs of Dover) I find it impossible to not love Sussex, and this book brings home some of the magic therein. I’ve you’ve not been before, pop down and have a look round. I’ll get the beers in.

“A Natural History Of Dragons” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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dragons 1“When I was seven, I found a sparkling lying dead on a bench at the edge of the woods which formed the back boundary of our garden, that the groundskeeper had not yet cleared away.”

I think everyone likes dragons. People are fascinated by dinosaurs, really, because they’re the closest thing we ever had to real dragons. There’s something remarkable about them, and given that they turn up in pretty much every ancient culture, maybe they were real once upon a time, but we’ve now relegated them to myth and legend.

Always eager to expand my knowledge in every direction, even a fictional one, I was attracted to the idea of A Natural History of Dragons, but even more than that I was attracted to the absolutely beautiful cover of this book, which, as you can see, displays an anatomical drawing of a dragon.

This is the first book of memoirs of Lady Trent, a famous dragon naturalist from a world which is greatly similar to ours, with the natural exception of different countries and so on, and obviously the inclusion of dragons. It is an era in which women are expected to keep house, talk of simple hobbies and not do anything that would stir up trouble in society; it’s an alternate Victorian era. But this is the age of discovery, and Lady Trent, or Isabella as she’s known at this point in her life, is keen not to be left behind. As a girl she studies sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures that are believed at first to be insects, but is dissuaded by her mother from doing so, meaning she has to hide her fascination.

Her father, however, is kinder and when it comes to the time that Isabella must find a husband, he suggests a few names to her, not going on the gentlemen’s looks or riches, but on the size of the library. Isabella eventually finds a husband in Jacob Camherst, whom she meets while at the king’s menagerie with her brother one day. They have only visited because the king has some dragons in captivity, and Jacob seems quietly impressed with her knowledge.

Once married, the opportunity comes for Jacob to travel with their friend Lord Hilford to the distant mountains of Vystrana in search of dragons. Unwilling to be left out of it, Isabella insists that she come with him. Despite the men believing that this is no place for a woman, she is allowed to attend, thanks to the true love of her husband who wishes only to make her happy, regardless of what society thinks.

The troop set out to the mountains and there encounter wild dragons. But there is far more danger lurking in the caves of the mountains than Isabella and her companions ever thought possible and they soon find themselves caught up in the activities of smugglers, an unusual number of dragon attacks, and a supposed curse. The adventure is one that Isabella will remember for the rest of her life…

dragons 2Indeed, she will remember it because the book’s framework is that Isabella is now elderly and penning her complete memoirs for her interested fans. We learn via this that in the future she is widely renowned in the field, hugely successful and popular, and these are her tales of how she got to that position. She is a wonderful creation, perhaps a feminist icon, unafraid of going against the opinion of the time and determined to make her own way in the world. Why, indeed, should only men get to be scholars and adventurers?

The story is rather gripping, but if you’ve come here for a blow-by-blow account on the nature of dragons then you will be disappointed. First and foremost these are the memoirs of a spunky Victorian-esque lady adventurer, but the passages on dragons are fascinating. Isabella is obviously besotted with the creatures but her expedition is to study them, so we learn alongside her the nature of the beasts. Although similar to traditional dragons in Western mythology, there are some new additions to the mix. For example, the bones do not survive in air very long after death and crumble almost immediately. Also, not all of the dragons breathe fire, although there are some, but they all breathe something unusual;be it shards of ice, poison gas or lightning.

The book is also peppered with beautiful illustrations, presumably done by Isabella herself who is primarily on the expedition as an artist, which allow the reader to see the dragons and the locations in fine detail.

It’s hugely compelling and while some parts go a bit too deep on customs of the various countries or the political situations between them, the chapters in which Isabella is meeting dragons are hugely interesting. She is a brilliant character herself, but the supporting cast are also well-received and all seem believable within the setting, which is familiar but just different enough. If you have even a passing interest in dragons and, as I suggested above, you do, then you should curl up with this book and dream of having adventures half as interesting as this.

“Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire” by J. K. Rowling (2000)

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from BBS upload“The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.”

Sometimes you can look back at something you’ve done or said and be proud of it. Other times you can realise you’ve been an utter fool. I mention this because I recently found an old, short review I made on Shelfari where I declared Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire my least favourite of the Potter series. I don’t quite know what made me say such a thing as a simple reread as told me that, actually, this is probably my favourite. And I know I said about the last one too, but as evidenced, I’m clearly allowed to change my opinion.

For those of you reading this, but somehow unfamiliar with the plot, I shall extrapolate thusly: Harry Potter, fourteen-year-old wizard, is stuck at the house of his non-magical aunt and uncle, almost starving and desperate to get back to school. Before that happens, he is invited by his best friend Ron and his family to the Quidditch World Cup final between Ireland and Bulgaria.

After one of the most impressive games of Quidditch ever played, everyone returns happy and excited to their tents, but sleep is disturbed when some wizards start a riot, and things come to a head when the Dark Mark, sign of the darkest wizard of all time Lord Voldemort, is seen above the crowds. Some of the wiser members of the community see that something very wrong is going on indeed.

Meanwhile, back at school, Hogwarts is to be hosting the Triwizard Tournament, a contest wherein the three schools of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang enter one student each to compete for a massive cash prize and the respect of all their peers. Cedric Diggory, Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum are chosen for each house, respectively, but then before anyone knows what it happening, a fourth champion is chosen: Harry Potter.

Harry and his fellow champions must now face three challenges and battle it out to become the winner of the Triwizard Tournament, and as if a dragon, a deep lake and a labyrinth weren’t enough, dark forces are coming together both inside and outside of the school walls, and life for the whole wizarding community is about to become very difficult once again.

Like in the third book, we see the world expanded hugely here once more. Last time we encountered a wizarding village, and this time we get to see wizards and witches from all over the world, revealing for the first time that magic truly is an international operation. We also get a lot of backstory – a couple of the later chapters are almost purely exposition – and begin to find out things about Neville Longbottom’s history, and the relationship between Snape and Dumbledore. There are introductions for new, vivid characters such as ruthless journalist Rita Skeeter (love to hate her), paranoid and insane Mad-Eye Moody, and conman Ludo Bagman, the latter of whom is one of my favourite characters for reasons I’ve never been able to satisfactorily explain. There is even an unnamed cameo by Bellatrix Lestrange, and the Lovegoods are mentioned; these will both bear fruit in the following book.

Rita Skeeter: the nastiest woman to put quill to parchment

Rita Skeeter: the nastiest woman to put quill to parchment

My one issue with the book is that Rowling repeats herself a lot here, traipsing, in early chapters, over old ground and filling in the reader with information they ought to know, as if they’ve never read the first three books. Granted, it was at this point that the books started to become such a phenomenon that required instant purchase (from here on in, all my copies are first editions), so perhaps people were picking it up and thinking they needn’t read the others, but thankfully Rowling still throws in a few references that are unexplained so not everything is spelt out.

I also noticed this time round that this book in particular is setting up Rowling as a future crime writer under her alternate name of Robert Galbraith. It’s something of a whodunnit, and relies on red herrings and neat twists to convince us that something other than the truth is going on. She’s adept at it, leaving out just enough information to make us think that we’ve got it all and not even notice that certain things can be taken in different ways or are being kept from us. Harry is, of course, an unreliable narrator in many ways, being unused to many aspects of the wizarding world and also generally being a little bit slow on the uptake now and again.

I still have some unanswered questions here, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer as the series progresses and Rowling has a clearer vision of her story. But still:

Why does Mr Crouch refer to Percy Weasley as ‘Weatherby’ when he works with his father, and thus would surely know his name? Why does Voldemort refer to Peter Pettigrew as ‘Wormtail’, when that name comes from a different part of his life? Where do the students have their bathrooms and why do we never see them wash or bathe? Where the hell is Durmstrang? And one for the fan fiction writers – what if Hermione and Krum had decided to give a long-distance relationship a go?

The series has now crossed the point of no return – we’re over halfway through, Voldemort is back (er … spoiler), and everything is going to change for every single character. Ollivander makes an appearance here, right in the middle, perfectly complementing his other two appearances at each end of the tale. Rowling has pulled out all the stops, ends the book at just the right moment with Dumbledore setting his plans in motion, leaving us wondering what will happen in the next book. We had to wait three years to find out. This time I will only be waiting a month. I shall return to Hogwarts in August.

The magic is still strong; if anything, stronger than ever.

“The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett (1983)

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the-colour-of-magic-1

I still don’t understand this cover.

“Fire roared through the bifurcated city of Ankh-Morpork.”

The Discworld series is an unstoppable force of nature. Everyone with even a passing interest in literature, no matter what your genre preference, has undoubtedly heard of the series and may know one or two things about it. It’s fairly common knowledge that one of the recurring characters is Death, and the the flat planet is carried on the back of four elephants that stand on a giant spacefaring turtle. It’s also well known as a parody of other fantasy books, as well as roleplaying games. It’s a series that even now, thirty years after it was born, still burns brightly throughout the libraries of the world.

As it is, I’m not a fan.

It’s sacrilegious to say it, perhaps, being as I am such a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams and Jasper Fforde, writers who have built amazing universes from scratch, but I simply cannot get my head around the Discworld novels. It defies all logic. I’ve watched and enjoyed (to various degrees) the TV films that have been shown so far, and will probably watch more if they arrive. One of my favourite computer games ever is Discworld Noir, which is a hard-boiled detective adventure game set in the grimy streets of Ankh-Morpork. I love the character of Death so much. But despite all of that, I cannot get my head into the books.

I better just give you a run down of what happens in this book before I get to a proper discussion.

In the very first of the Discworld novels, we meet Rincewind, a failed wizard who, after forty years at university, has only managed to learn one spell, a spell that is so dangerous that other spells refuse to share his mind. Greedy and trying to keep himself alive, he is perhaps not the nicest of characters. He soon meets Twoflower, a curiously dressed man who has become the disc’s first tourist, from the fabled Counterweight Continent. Oblivious to the danger he keeps getting himself into – this is a man who thinks nothing of asking barbarians to stop a brawl fight so he can have a picture taken with them – Rincewind takes it upon himself to save him.

The two are suddenly catapulted into a fight of their lives as they travel most of the disc with the simple aim of staying alive. They pass a number of incredible things, from the temple of the Soul Eater, dragons that only exist if you believe in them, a troll made of water and the most dangerous thing of all – the edge of the planet.

The Colour of Magic Sir David Jason as Rincewind ©RHI/Bill Kaye

Rincewind: the worst wizard on the Disc

There is absolutely no denying that Pratchett can build a world. There appears to not a single aspect that he hasn’t considered, from the nature of seasons on a flat planet, to the workings of magic (which seems to send up the rules of the Dungeons and Dragons universe) and the notion of hovercrafts that float simply because hydrophobic wizards are staring at the water, willing it to go away.

The ideas presented are great, intelligent and funny, but the book is so dense (not literally, it spans only 280-odd pages) that is becomes difficult. You’re so busy trying to work out what certain races are, what certain words mean, how to pronounce most of the names (Hrun, Lio!rt and Ymor, to name three) that you become distracted from the story as a whole. As someone who can never sleep during the day, I think it’s important to note that I fell asleep twice during this book.

There are no chapters, although the book is split into six parts (unusual for a Discworld novel, I’m told) and it really feels like three or four book’s worth of stuff squashed together. There is no time for a breath between various adventures and you can quickly get confused about what is happening.

In short, I didn’t enjoy this book but I am quietly cursing myself for that fact. Everything in the universe screams that Pratchett should be one of my favourite authors, but the denseness of his writing makes it difficult for this to become a reality. I appreciate that, as the first book in the series, there is a lot to set up here, and it’s regularly stated that this is probably the worst of the Discworld canon, so I’m probably not being entirely fair. I did earlier read a later book called Mort, which I enjoyed rather a little more, but still not very much. If you love fantasy then go for it (although I would assume that you’re already involved in this world), but for the casual reader, there are easier series to get into.

I appreciate that I’m in a minority with these opinions, and with thirty-nine books in the canon so far, he’s cearly doing something right. But for me, it’s a no. I’ll bid the Discworld books a farewell for the foreseeable future.