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Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton, has been described as “Pride and Prejudice of the dragon world”, but I think this does the book a disservice.

Pride and Prejudice, in my opinion, dragged a little.  Tooth and Claw does not.  At all.  From the very first scene, I was dying to find out what happened next, and how the various intricacies of the plots would work themselves out.

The book does share some similarity of style with the classics, but it lacks the thing that irritates me most about those books.  Jane Austen, along with most of the other famous authors of the period, writes assuming a level of basic knowledge about the society in which the characters live.  That’s fair enough – and modern authors do it too – but now that society has changed, I can’t help but feel there are little nuances of meaning which escape me.  Little jokes, which, if only I knew more about the society they lived in, I would find hilarious.

Tooth and Claw is set in another world.  Jo Walton goes through the world-building process that readers of fantasy and science fiction will be familiar with.  Her dragon society is not just human society with dragon characters, but involves new rules for what is “normal” – such as eating the remains of your parents after they die, culling the weak, and so on.  Sure, there are some things which stay the same – like the distinction between the gentry and the poor folk – but it’s all explained.

One of the interesting things was the effect that biology has on their marriage practices.  Maiden dragons are gold.  If they get too close to an unmarried male dragon who loves them, then they blush pink (later to turn red when they’ve laid their first clutch of eggs).  This means that everyone can tell if you’ve been alone with a male.  A maiden who blushes before she has become betrothed is considered spoiled.  It leads to some fine predicaments for two of the characters.  If you wanted to, you could read all sorts of political messages into that.

Tooth and Claw doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It has a kind of dry wit spread throughout which made it very good reading.  For example, the scenes have headings, and throughout the book there are a great number which are called “A confession”, “A proposal”, “A second confession”, “Two deaths and a third proposal” and so on.  Near the end there is one which is titled “The narrator is forced to confess to having lost count of both proposals and confessions”.

I would recommend this book for people who like the style of classic novels, people who like dry wit, people who like dragons, and people who are any combination of the above.

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Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days is unashamedly and firmly in the category of Christian Fiction.  

The book begins with the sudden, unexplainable disappearance of hundreds of thousands of seemingly random people across the globe.  People disappear from their beds, from their cars (moving or otherwise), from planes flying at 40,000 feet.  They leave behind only their clothes.

Everyone has a theory.  Space aliens, technological problems, nuclear accident, sun spots.  As time goes by it becomes clear that the correct answer, though most refuse to accept it, is the Rapture.  God has come and taken his people away, and everyone else has been Left Behind.

Since all of the “proper” Christians have been taken, the characters are all atheist, agnostic, or “Sunday” Christians.  During the course of the book they move through various stages of their spiritual journey – some end up accepting God into their lives and some don’t.  I won’t tell you which are which.  I felt that the non-Christian portions of their personalities could have been developed a little more.

The book is, if you can read past the blatant attempts to convert people, an entertaining read.  The Antichrist makes an appearance and the stage is set for many disasters on the world stage.

However, it is very obvious that it was written as the first in a series, rather than the series coming later when the first book was successful.  The story ends quite abruptly, leaving me with a vague sense of disquiet and a lot of loose ends.

Despite the unfinished nature of the tale, I don’t feel any great rush to read the next one.

I went to see the film adaptation of The Host, by Stephanie Meyer, at the weekend.

All in all, it was a remarkably accurate adaptation, considering what the film industry normally do to books.  I did spot a few places where the action was subtly different to the way it was described in the book, but the main plot items were all there, and all in the right order.  There were no characters missing, or extra characters, as sometimes happens.

For those who don’t know, the Earth has been invaded by body-snatching alien “Souls”, who have turned it into a paradise with no war, hunger, disease, or rude people.  The down side, of course, is that you lose control of your body, causing most people to just give up and fade away.  Melanie, one of a small group of human survivors, is captured and infested, but she resists, causing her alien companion no end of problems.  And, incidentally, being involved in a complex love-polygon in which the Soul and the Host are in love with different people.

It must be tricky to make a film adaptation of something where a large portion of the action occurs inside someone’s head, but they did very well.  The person in control of Melanie’s body always speaks out loud, with the passenger doing voice over, so you can tell who is speaking.  Their arguments are some of the best things about the film.

The characterisation worked well in both book and film, although in the film the relationship between some of the humans was not as clear as it could have been, and you don’t get to know some of the supporting characters as well.  There’s only so much you can do within a sensible film time-limit, I suppose.

I enjoyed the book more than the film; whether this is because of how the action translated to the screen or because I already knew what was going to happen when I watched the film I don’t know.  However, while I would happily read the book again (in a few years time), I’m not sure that I would bother watching the film again.

 

Think you know fairy tales?  Think again.

Marissa Meyer is back with book 2 of the Lunar Chronicles, the story of Scarlet Benoit.  Scarlet is on a mission to find her grandmother, kidnapped from their farm several weeks ago.  The police have given up, convinced she left on her own, but Scarlet’s not alone – a street fighter nicknamed “Wolf” is helping her.  Those with any recollection of childhood stories will be a little suspicious of his motives, but Meyer manages to keep you guessing for a long time.

And then there’s the little matter of why Grandma was kidnapped.  Scarlet’s grandma was in the military, but that was decades ago.  Surely she couldn’t know anything worth kidnapping her over?

Meanwhile, a dangerous fugitive has broken out of prison.  Cinder, the cyborg from book 1 who lost her foot while running away from the ball, is on the loose!   All she wants is to be left alone, but she knows that’s not an option.  So she’s determined to find out more about her past.  Why does she have no memories before the age of 11?  Is there anyone who knows her story?

And, as the two women strive to find out the truth, the Lunar Queen makes her preparations for an invasion of Earth.

I loved this book.  The characterisation is impressive, the plot moves along at a pace that had me glued to the sofa, and there were enough little twists that knowing your fairy tales doesn’t help you predict what’s going to happen in anything more than a general sense.

In fact, only one thing annoys me – we’re expected to wait until 2014 for book 3!

The threads of five seemingly unrelated lives are woven together to create a story which hangs together in the end. I found my enjoyment increased once I reached the point where I could start to see some of the connections between the different people.

A university professor, making ends meet by singing backing music for resonance advertising and the occassional high-class soiree; an honest senator trying to get re-elected and run his district well; the crooked head of a multinational family-run corporation; a police detective investigating a series of suicides (or are they murders?); and a researcher working for a news corporation looking for the next big story.

Each of the characters percieves beauty in a different way, from the traditional music/art to the beauty inherent in politics, police work, and data analysis.  That explains the “beauty” in the title, although I had to look up “archform” to find out what it meant.  This is what Wikipedia says:

In music, arch form is a sectional structure for a piece of music based on repetition, in reverse order, of all or most musical sections such that the overall form is symmetric, most often around a central movement. The sections need not be repeated verbatim but must at least share thematic material.

This does describe the book quite well, in fact.  One theme in several sections, all revolving around a central mystery.

At various points in the book it is pointed out that what is technically beautiful might not appeal to everyone – and this is the case here.  The book was quite slow to get started. I found the constant jumping from one character to the next to be irritating, as it took much longer to find out anything about the characters. However, overall it was a good read.

A survey which was released recently has discovered that “middle age” is now later than we previously thought.  Almost 20% of people said that middle age is a state of mind, but of those who specified an age, the average was 55.  Previous estimates have been around 36.

The thinking is that people are living longer, so the boundaries are having to be redrawn.  One statistic in the article sprang out at me: there are more people over 65 than there are under 16.

I have a habit of taking trends to their extremes to see what would happen, so naturally this statistic reminded me of Children of Men, a film in which no children have been born for 18 years.

The film is a loose adaptation of a PD James novel by the same name.  I’ve seen the film but not read the book, so I decided some research was in order and hunted up a copy to read.

(Warning: this post contains spoilers for major plot points).

The Film

It’s been a while since I saw it, which means this section is mostly focussed on the points which are easy to remember.  The UK is one of the last remaining functioning governments in the world, partly due to their extreme stance on immigration.  The chaos is immense.

In the midst of all this a man, Theo, is kidnapped by activists and asked to accompany a young woman on a journey, as protection for her.  He agrees, and it’s not until after quite a few shenanigans that he discovers why she is so important: she is pregnant.  The activists are planning to use the child as propaganda, so the two of them run away with the intention of delivering her to a group of scientists who are trying to cure the infertility crisis.

The baby is born on route, and Theo is gravely injured in some fighting.  The pair are last seen in a small row-boat, Theo slipping into unconsciousness as the scientist’s ship approaches through the fog.

There was one scene in the film which I think will stay with me for many years to come.  The baby is born during a battle between the activists, immigration prisoners in a prison camp, and government forces.  The building in which they are trapped is surrounded and under heavy gunfire.  Suddenly the sound of a baby’s wail fills the air.  Nobody has heard this sound for two decades.  The fighting stops as people look at each other in bewildered awe.  The young mother carries her child out of the building, through the surrounding army to the relative safety of the rest of the battle.

And then the fighting recommences.

The transition from awed silence to deafening gunfire is instantaneous, as if someone has thrown a switch and recalled all of the soldiers to their duty.  It is a stark reminder of something – something which I am having trouble putting into words, and which is perhaps best left as an unstated feeling.

The Book

The book, as I was warned, is much more cerebral than the film.  The film was, for the most part, strict action-adventure.  The book, in comparison, gives detail on the political structure of the country, and even hints of the way the rest of the world is coping.

The book is written partially as a third person narrative, and partially as a series of diary entries by Theo, who in the book is the cousin of the Warden of England and therefore slightly more immune to punishments than the average person.

The differences were not limited to the amount of background detail that was included.  There were differences in plot, both major and minor.  The ending, in particular, was radically different, with Theo killing his cousin and taking on the role of Warden to protect the newborn child and his mother.

One of the minor differences was the way the infertility presented.  In the film, the women are barren; in the book it is the men who suffer.  The book also came up with both a sensible response from the government (compulsory sperm testing of all healthy males in an attempt to find someone who could father a child) and a way that the pregnancy could have occurred without them knowing (the father had epilepsy as a child and was exempt from the testing).

I was impressed with the way the details were doled out at just the correct pace, interspersed with enough action to keep me interested.  Some of the details of social response to the situation were fascinating just from a psychological viewpoint, though they added very little to the plot.

All in all, I would recommend both the book and the film, for different reasons.  I may have to investigate and see if other books by PD James are equally enthralling. 

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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