Summer Holiday Books 2013

My first holiday book was Champions of the Force by Kevin J. Anderson; the third and final book in the Jedi Academy trilogy. Despite having near-perfect book reading conditions (lots of time, zero distractions) I found this book hard-going and ultimately disappointing. The multitude of unexplored avenues that could have been travelled by the familiar Star Wars characters were ignored in favour of a galactic cul-de-sac of cliché which did not deliver spectacle or excitement.

The story can be (rather badly) summarised as follows. Following events of the previous book we find Luke Skywalker in a coma where he has out-of-body awareness, the Darkside baddie goes on about how he’s really gonna kick his ass, but doesn’t and eventually gets killed by Skywalker’s trainee Jedi Knights. Leia’s kid Anakin almost gets kidnapped, but doesn’t. All plans by Empire forces or their allies are scotched in a series of rather uninteresting chapters.

‘There is no try, only do,’ ‘never tell me the odds,’ ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this,’ ‘this deal is getting worse all the time’ are phrases familiar to Star Wars fans – the only other biggy missing from this list is perhaps Ackbar’s classic line ‘it’s a trap!’. Why Anderson feels it necessary to constantly regurgitate these lines in book three of a trilogy is beyond me. He really should have found his feet by the third book and not be reliant on other peoples writing.

The only saving grace is a fair amount of humour based around the petty bureaucrat who finds himself in command of a prototype model of the Death Star – having two hour meetings and constantly referring to lengthy documentation in the middle of a crisis situation reminded me more of Office Space than Star Wars.

A final qualification I feel obliged to apply to this rather scathing review (I have held back, it could have been worse) is that I have to assume it is written for children and so I’ve cut Anderson some slack when it comes to the subject of character development. It reads like a kid’s book anyway and I can only really recommend it to die hard Star Wars fans as something to read while they’re waiting to see if Disney make a dog’s dinner of the franchise.

Last year I read volume one of The Black Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan and very luckily found volume two and three (see later) in a taverna near the airport on my last day. I have kept the two books for a year since then waiting to read them as ‘holiday books’. I found book two The Novice (the continued story of Sonea – a pauper inducted into the Magician’s Guild of fantasy city Imardin) far more enjoyable and better written than Champions of the Force, despite my feelings that the trilogy is also aimed at teenage readers.

Most of book two revolves around Sonea being bullied by her classmates egged on by one particularly unlikeable character called Regin. This ringleader is from a rich family ‘House’ and has an enormous portion of chips on his shoulders regarding Sonea’s lack of lineage. At times the story seems very much like a Hogwart’s storyline and so it was good to have a second parallel storyline to differentiate it from Potter. This second tale is one of Dannyl a gay-in-denial magician sent on a quest to discover the shady past of the head of the guild High Lord Akkarin. Did I say Annakin? No I said Akkarin…

The thoughtfulness that has gone into shaping the characters and their motivations and quality of writing clearly puts it ahead of the Jedi Academy trilogy. There are big dollops of intrigue, unanswered questions and the shadow of a coming war to set up book three nicely.

But first a break from all the sci-fi and fantasy for something a little different, something a lot realer – The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. The Lovely Bones and Lucky have been previous holiday reads of mine, so I knew that this wasn’t going to be a typical ‘beach book’. The opening line – When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily – says it all really. This tale is comparable to the work of Stephen King – containing gritty realism, dark subject matter, and flitting timelines. However, unlike with most King books, I failed to connect with Sebold’s main character in any meaningful way.

Sebold’s frank and gritty style is to be applauded along with the odd moments of near poetic imagery. However when all is said and done there just wasn’t enough happening in the unfolding story for me to enjoy it much. The tale, for all its glass onioned layering, was not particularly unique and had no great twists or revelations.

Perhaps I am unable to wholly recommend this book as it is half about mental health and half about family relationship from a woman’s point of view, and I only found the mental health elements of interest, and perhaps my expectations were set way to high after the profoundly moving Lovely Bones and Lucky. This book is indeed an almost moon when compared to her other literary beacons.

So back to fantasy. It wouldn’t be a proper holiday for me without one of Bernard Cornwell’s historic novels. Death of Kings is book six of The Warrior Chronicles (I think) and I have previously read and enjoyed Sword Song and The Last Kingdom from the series. As I started reading it I had a burgeoning fear that I had already read it – that’s the problem with picking up books out of sequence as they become available from second-hand sources – but this fear was soon quelled as I realised I hadn’t. I had the ‘safety net’ of Azincourt, another Cornwell novel, waiting in the wings should my fears be realised – as it happened this book remained unread and travelled back with me.

The book continues the story of King Alfred’s oath-sworn warrior Uhtred, a pagan who fights to maintain a Christian kingdom. The king is dying and chaos is expected when he does shuffle off his coil as the Danes will try to take control of Wessex. We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to some heavenly perfection, but stumbling downhill towards Ragnorak – Uhtred thinks when looking upon the ruins of Roman buildings built-in Mercia hundreds of years before his time (the early 900’s). As one would expect, this book is steeped in history, politics of the kings of the dis-united kingdoms, and references to old place names (a handy glossary precedes the action). Apart from the odd comment here and there, Cornwell noticeably reigns in his theological musings a little in favour of telling Uhtred’s tale, which is ultimately the tale of the formation on England. Uhtred is a canny character and a brave warrior and I wish I had enjoyed these books in sequence as I have done with the comparable work of George R R Martin.

The action sequences are visceral, well-paced, gruesomely detailed and juxtaposed with romantic descriptions of the country Uhtred fights to protect. As the Prodigy would say Invaders Must Die! Most of the big battle scenes come late in the story, as one would expect, and as usual for this time period boil down to the microcosm of the shield-wall. At times these scenes read somewhat like a production line of death, a slaughterhouse of mud and blood, and it’s to Cornwell’s credit that this is the case. When it comes to fighting on foot with shield and sword he is a master of precise and necessarily gory description.

Death of Kings was without doubt my stand-out book of the holiday.

The High Lord by Trudi Canavan is the third and final book of the Black Magician Trilogy. I started reading it on Day 13 of my two-week holiday and so ended up finishing it off at home.

This final instalment mainly concentrates on Sonea’s relationship with Akkarin, their forced exile from the guild following revelations over the nature of ‘black’ magic and the ‘invasion’ of their homeland by powerful black magicians from neighbouring Sachakan. Think Jedi council, the light side versus dark, the Sith and a grey area between light and dark and you pretty much have the picture.

I was disappointed with this book. It seemed to lack ambition after the promising groundwork performed by Canavan in the first two instalments. The ‘invasion’ is an attack by a small group of very powerful characters, hence the quote marks. Unlike Cornwell’s books there is no great battle as such. The invaders are picked off one by one by Sonea and her allies (including her old thief friend Cery and a brief appearance by a humbled Regin) until only three remain. Some key characters die in the process, but it’s hard to care, and the love story between Sonea and the High Lord seemed forced.

The final magical battle sequence seemed too brief, too small-scale and too easily won by Sonea despite her losses. The whole book seemed to be acted out on too small a scale in comparison to my expectations of a grand and epic finale. The final chapter after the battle also seemed flat, sketchy and not at all satisfying in its attempts to indicate what would become of the characters.

In summary the High Lord is a reasonably entertaining book which fails deliver upon the promises set up in the preceding books of the trilogy.

Again I would like to give a big shout out to Sue Ryder – the source of most of these books.

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