“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.