The Fellowship of the Ring – JRR Tolkien

One of those novels that is so foundational to the whole fantasy genre and much more, The Fellowship of the Ring is a book I wanted to re-read but found that, although I loved the world building, it’s maybe a weaker book than the Tolkien I’ve just read, The Hobbit.

The imagination, the world building, is, of course, astounding. What is great is how so much of it is the core of a now-established mythology – the creatures, the language, the ideas, they are found in different ways throughout popular culture. Orcs, goblins, hobbits, dwarves… everything. I’m not sure how much Tolkien invented and how much he borrowed, but it’s clear he builds a systematic world around them. Even things like Lembas, the life giving Elven bread, is the name of a wholefood wholesaler in Sheffield, for example…

Great too is the building of the ‘company’ with all their quirks and different skills. The introduction of Aragorn or Strider in particular is captivating, he’s such a strong character; and the company’s gradual bonding as they travel for months on end through dangerous or arduous territory is powerful.

But, as the first part of a trilogy, this feels like a pretty slow start. Despite some big moments, most notably Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog and Boromir’s challenge to Frodo over the ring, much of the book is scene-setting and descriptive, with the major battles yet to come in the second and third parts. The language too, especially the dialogue, is pretty antiquated.

I think the major drawback of the Fellowship of the Ring, as opposed to The Hobbit has, is that it lacks two important things.

Humour. Perhaps because the latter is written for younger audiences it’s a big lighter, more fun to read, whereas in the Fellowship there’s a lot of drudgery, which makes it ultimately less enjoyable, denser maybe and lacking an element of joy.

Second, moral ambiguity. Whereas in The Hobbit the ring is a corrupting influence – with Gollum a clear example, but even Bilbo struggling to do the right thing at times – in the Fellowship there is a much clearer sense of right and wrong with characters like Aragorn, Legolas and Frodo rarely tempted by darkness. And this lack of depth makes it in some ways a thinner book than The Hobbit despite it being twice the number of pages.

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“For anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather overcrowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

There’s so much hype about the film version of The Hobbit it’s easy to forget that it’s quite an understated book with a more complex take on morality than you might think.

The novel follows the journey of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit torn between homeliness and adventure. He is visited by a troop of dwarves, led by former King Thorin, and the wizard Gandalf. They persuade him to join them on a journey to reclaim the dwarves’ stolen treasure, guarded by an enormous and dangerous dragon.

An epic adventure ensues, meeting trolls, goblin armies, giants, elves, men, enormous spiders, golum – when Bilbo finds the invisibility ring – and eventually arriving at the mountain on the other side of Mirkwood, where they wait to enter and steal the treasure.

Their desire for the treasure is so strong that obstinate Thorin nearly begins a war between the elves, men and dwarves. It’s only Bilbo and, more significantly, an approaching goblin army that unites the three armies against a shared enemy.

In my mind, before reading this, I associated The Hobbit with a pretty blunt good versus evil morality tale, but reading it I see there are in fact some psychological subtleties. The three races of dwarf, man and elf are all good, in contrast to the goblins, but to some extent corrupted by money. The dwarves in particular almost cause a war with the elves and men because they won’t give up any of their fortune they consider theirs. It’s a position that is understandable given the historic theft of the gold and the consequent impoverishment of the dwarf kingdom, but nevertheless is short-sighted and foolishly selfish.

My feeling is that it’s quite a male book, because it focuses on war and gallantry and power – and because there are NO women characters, not a single female of significance in the whole book. So perhaps its story of what it takes to ‘do the right thing’ has a particularly masculine bent – I’m not sure – but nevertheless it doesn’t shy away from the competing drives that reside in the main characters, making it a good story with some satisfying depth.

“It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side, and deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down.”

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

Spare and Found Parts – Sarah Maria Griffin

This is a fine piece of science fiction, rich in detail, that slowly subverts ideals around work and family.

It focuses on Nell, a teenage girl, in a world where advanced technology is no longer allowed after it caused an epidemic resulting in people losing lives and, significantly, limbs.

After ‘the Turn’ – as its known – Nell’s Dad becomes a revered doctor / scientist who has created prosthetic limbs that allow people to live as they used to.

Everyone needs to make a ‘contribution’ to the city, to get it back on its feet. Neil’s friend Ruby is focused on fashion, her irritant-stalker-friend Oliver on prosthetics too, but Nell is unsure. Then she stumbles across a mannequin hand that gives her the idea to build a boy; and, after finding computers from before the Turn, she rigs up a functioning android called Io.

At the heart of the book appear to be two very conservative ideas – the nuclear family and work – but both are subverted by the end. Nell’s Mum has died and her father looks after her when not working. But it appears that actually her Dad, Julian, is a duplicitous plagiarist and a thief in his work, and her Mum, Cora, was so obsessed with scientific work that she effectively brought on her own death. Neither work nor family come out of this too well.

It’s a good plot, a nice subversion on the themes, but the book’s really brought alive by the detail of Nell’s cobbling and creations – limbs, wires, screws, all the stuff of basic electronics and (I guess, fantasy prosthetics) that give it a real hands-on feel.

‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King

This is classic horror, pure and simple. A great, haunting novel that satirises rural America.

The first few hundred pages tells the story of Jerusalem’s Lot, introducing us to the people, the closeness, the closedness of this small New England Town.

The two incomers to the town are Ben Mears who grew up there and is now a successful novelist. He returns to write a story about the imposing Marsten House, a building with a terrible history that stands above the town – and one where he had a terrifying experience as a child.

The other is Straker, an elegant gentleman who is supposedly opening a new antique store and has taken residence at Marsten House with his partner, as yet unseen, Barlow.

As well as the day to day of small town life going on – arguments, affairs, drunkenness – odd things begin to happen. A dog’s head is found spiked on a railing, a child called Danny Glick dies – then his whole family – and gradually more and more people appear to be hollowed-out and zombie-like.

A cohort gradually understand with horror, and some shock, what’s happening – that Barlow is a vampire who is turning the whole town and they attempt to fight him, losing all the people they love – and for most of them their lives – in the process.

Ben and a teenager called Mark Petrie are the lead of a band of heroes, alongside Ben’s old teacher Matt, doctor Jimmy Codie and priest

Father Callahan, with support from Ben’s girlfriend Susan Norton. The characters, the big ones and the bit players in the town,are brilliant, so well written.

What I love about this book is partly how classic it is – the small town, the band of defenders, the nods to the traditions of horror and vampire literature, and the kind of modern day vampire and zombie stuff we see in the likes of Walking Dead.

And what I love too is how it parodies small town life – where Stephen King says he grew up. The minutiae of daily life, the gossip, the sense of isolation, the way everything is closed up after dark meaning anything can happen without being noticed. 

There’s a great bit in King’s afterword to the edition I read where he says his Mum would have chainsmoked her way through the last 100 gripping pages before declaring the book trash, but good trash. I know what he means: this book is trashy vampire horror, but of the highest, well-written and meaningful quality. 

Only Begotten Daughter – James Morrow

This is the story of God’s daughter, Julie Katz, born in a test tube to lighthouse-living outsider Murray in twenty first century Atlanta City. It’s a truly original story and a funny, scathing critique of religion.

After his death Julie’s angry because her mother (Gilid) has abandoned her, not to mention made her a deity with divine powers, powers which Murray had warned her not to use because right wing religious zealots will see it as blasphemous – not least Billy Milk and his son Timothy who blew up the clinic where Julie was born right after Murray had visited and picked up Julie in her jar. 

She tries to negotiate a life with her odd ball and eventually alcoholic friend Phoebe, first rejecting her powers and then using them in a newspaper column. Eventually she gives up hiding them and, after revealing herself to the world through a big act, accepts an offer from the devil (called Andrew Wyvern) to go to hell. There she meets her brother, Jesus, who works tirelessly providing hell’s sufferers with a morphine-like drug.

Fed up with hell she gives up her powers in return for life, and finds that a ‘church’ has been established by her former editor – and future husband – Bix, while Billy Milk and his band of zealots are in charge of Atlanta. In the end she tries to help Phoebe fight alcoholism and she is caught and brought for crucifixion…

This really is a good book. Well plotted. Interesting characters. Constant surprises. Full of apt metaphors. It has a religious or parable-like feel to it at times, but it’s so much more than that. It’s literary and weird and sci-fi and fantasy – I don’t know what genre it is.

And it’s a great satire of religion, good and evil are entirely jumbled. Julie’s the daughter of an uncaring God. Julie has powers to do good but doesn’t know if and his to use them. Jesus is in hell. Only three or four people appear to be in heaven. The devil is helping the so-called religious on earth…

Recommended.

“Of course we have a waiting list. Don’t believe everything you hear about hell. Next time you run into some anti-hell propaganda, consider the source… And remember, we persecute only the guilty, which puts us one up on most other institutions.”

Andrew Wyvern (the devil) in James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter  

“Karou had stabbed men before, and she hated it, the gruesome feeling of penetrating living flesh. She pulled back, leaving her makeshift weapon in his side. His face registered neither pain nor surprise. It was, Karou thought as he closed in, a dead face. Or rather, the living face of a dead soul.

It was utterly terrifying.”

Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini Taylor

This is a mix of a deep fantasy and a love story, making it an interesting read but frustratingly conventional at times.

 The heroin is Karou, a feisty 17-year art student old living in Prague who was in fact raised in another world – Elsewhere – by Brimstone, a chimera who harvests and somehow uses teeth, the source of a mysterious magical power.

 Karou is fluent in over 20 languages, trained in martial arts and is able to travel around the world – and the underworld – at will, thanks to wishes granted by these teeth; something she often does, running ‘errands’ to collect teeth for Brimstone to use, though we don’t know what for exactly.

 It’s a great premise, and the opening 80 or so pages are brilliant for it, not least in her interactions with other humans who view her as a beautiful mystery – he superficial boyfriend Kaz and her friend Zuzana.

 We gradually learn that the chimera are in an ongoing battle in this Elsewhere world with the angels, the Seraphim, who have the power on their side, but not the magic of Brimstone which enables chimera to pass through bodies and occupy new ones when they are destroyed.

All of these ideas and scenes are great – imaginative, evocative, gripping. There’s so much to the fantasy and the world Taylor constructs and I could read that all day long.

 Where there book falls down a little, though, is in the core of the plot – where Karou meets the angel Akiva, first in combat and then again, and they fall in love. There are great things in the relationship – scenes where they fight, revelations about Brimstone, large sections where we and Karou herself learns about her past, about how she came to live half in the human world, half Elsewhere. But ultimately about half the book, perhaps, is focused on their relationship and it’s too much, for me at least.

 It’s a good read, lots of great ideas and imagery, but not quite as strong as it could have been if less time were spent on the love story.

The Ocean at the end of the lane – Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the end of the lane is many things – part fantasy; both heartwarming and, in parts very dark; part reflection on the wonder of childhood and the hazy memories adults have of those years; and part a look at what it is to be a child who feels feel distant from and misunderstood by their parents and the adult world.

A man (I’m not sure we even learn his name, actually, despite being the protagonist) visits his rural childhood home, which conjures up memories of a time when he was seven and entered into some surprising and terrifying adventures.

His parents had recruited a childminder, Ursula Monkton, who charmed everyone but the protagonist. It turns out her perfect body was a shell for a monster who wanted to devour him, and nobody but he could see her true nature. There is a shocking scene in which the boy’s Dad – who often shouts but is not normally murderous – tries to drown him whilst, it appears, under the thrall of Ursula.

He enlisted the help of the Hempstock family from the farm down the road, who it turns out are thousands of years old and have magical powers. Together they fought off the ‘hunger birds’, which wanted to kill the boy too. Gaiman has a brilliant concept here, with these birds who eat the very fabric of reality:

“Where it devoured the grass, nothing remained – a perfect nothing, only a colour that reminded me of grey, but a formless, pulsing grey… This was the void. Not blackness, not nothingness. This was what lay behind the thickly painted scrim of reality.”

One of these ‘vultures of the void’ as he calls them, kills Lettie Hempstock rather than the boy – or, not kills, but temporarily drains her of life and the she enters the ocean at the end of the lane to regenerate, which is where 40 years later he finds the Hempstocks, with Lettie still in repair.

It ends with an exchange in which Ginnie Hempstock says to him “Lettie did a very big thing for you. I think she mostly wants to find out what happened next, and whether it was worth the sacrifice.”

“Did I pass?” he aks

She replies: “You don’t pass or fail as a person, dear.”

It is these nuggets of brilliance combined with the story itself, which so subtly evokes the sense of being a child in adult world, of your imagination and inner life being beyond the grasp of your parents, that make this an incredible book. 

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Read July 2015

American gods is the story of shadow, a quiet hard man, out of prison, wife dead, recruited to be the minder for what it turns out is a God. He is drawn into an underworld, existing beneath contemporary America, in which the Gods of old are. Battling for relevance in a consumerist age. It’s an interesting theme, the protagonist is great to follow, although a bit too perfect, and the plot draws you in. I got a bit lost 2/3 of the way in when it turned to lots of description and was less plot driven, but it’s a good back that balances mystery and fantasy well.

It was followed by a short story – The Monarch of the Glen – where Shadow is in Scotland and is chosen, Gladiator style, to fight for the humans against the monsters, in a house party for the mega rich, which is a modern version of a ritual that has taken place annually for thousands of years. Because – but largely because – we already know Shadow, this feels a stronger, more engaging and punchier story than American Gods.

Un Lun Dun – China Mieville

UnLunDun

Read Feb 2014

An incredibly imaginative story of a girl who discovers an alternative London populated by  bizarre people and creatures. She ends up helping save Un Lun Dun from an evil smog that is trying up destroy it. What’s fantastic about the book is it’s creations and it’s imaginative ideas. It’s fun to read and very intelligent with references to post-structuralism, language and philosophy at various points. But it does lack characters you can identify with and care about. And in the end the plot is a girl reluctantly saves the world from an evil genius.