Monday, 30 September 2019

A Little Hatred

Once again we're looking at a book I have been excited for few months to read. Joe Abercrombie, perhaps best described as 'the Quentin Tarantino of fantasy' returns to his First Law world with the first installment of a wonderful new series. In the new book A Little Hatred, we kick off the Age of Madness!

Picking up thirty odd years after the original First Law trilogy, we are now viewing the world through the eyes of new characters, some the children of previous characters and others entirely new people populating this fascinating world! We have the self centered Crown Prince Orso, the unscrupulous daughter of the Grand Lector, Savine dan Glokta, an up and coming noble from the North in Angland, Leo dan Brock, daughter and potential witch Rikke, veteran and family man Broad, urchin and revolutionary Vick, and a named man of particular distinction working for the forces of the North, Clover.

This new cast has many connections to the old cast. Friends, children, and others who have come to the fore. They are in a new world, a new age. The chimneys of industry rise over the Union, the old Gurkish Empire is in shambles, and rising powers in the east and west, the Old Empire and the Kingdom of Styria, all strive to displace the Union as the foremost power of the world. But this is an unequal age, unrest is formenting in the Union as workers struggle to survive, the nobility is restless, and above all, war looms large in the North. All is restless in the Circle of the World.

Because I have not yet talked about the previous trilogy (which I will get around to reviewing in full in 2020) I will be making this review as spoiler free as possible. So no worries, I will not be giving anything away here. Pro-tip though, don't do what I did and go to the First Law Wiki and spoil some minor plot points!

For those familiar with the first trilogy (and the spin offs) you will be quite happy to know we come back to a world well versed in moral ambiguity and bloodshed. Some old faces are still around, some have gone back to the mud. You'll be quite happy if you've read all the books so far, and I can say without question that this keeps Abercrombie's signature style, as well as adding some whole new troubles and fun into the mix!

The cast is well rounded, and a particular new standout is Clover, something of a lazy, indolent layabout. He is new to this series, and he helps run Abercrombie's style from the moment he steps foot into the plot. To be clear, he is self-centered, amoral and very much willing to use violence to achieve his ends when absolutely necessary.

Each character has their own signature style and plot line, and they often intersect in quite interesting and often very surprising ways. I guarantee that readers will be kept guessing about the penultimate destinations (and fates) of so many of our 'heroes' to the very end of the story! Some people are genuinely heroic, others are wolves in sheep's clothing, and it is up to you to figure out which is which!

Blood soaks every page almost from the beginning of the story. It is so much more than that however, as complex stories about politics, economics, and even a smidge of philosophy gets thrown in. It is a fast paced read, with many twists and turns, and our cast will both surprise and horrify you to equal degree. If you aren't shocked and appalled at the end like I was, you really won't have been paying attention!

The themes of change and how it effects everyone are well addressed. On the cusp of an Industrial Revolution, much of the old order in the Union has been upended. The nobility still control much of the world, but are finding themselves squeezed by new taxes to pay for wars and industrialization. The working men are also squeezed by taxes, but greedy nobles and industrialists buy their land out and put them in miserable shanties to eke out a rough existence on the edge of death and poverty. What we read is almost Dickensian in nature, but it is still something just shy of the horrors and brutality of our own gilded age. Savine is a particular window into this world of squalor and nouveau riche mentality which keeps the wealth flowing upwards, and it is well examined all around. From the poor to the wealthy, things can go downhill quite quickly.

As usual, Abercrombie delivers on the action and the intrigue. Bayaz looms large over the plot, and you'll be happy to see he's back and just as bad. The story is well split with the characters, and even some with only a bit of screen time get fleshed out quite well in little asides that build the world and establish the madness of the times the characters are going through! The ending really does set us up for the sequels, and it makes me unable to wait for the next installments!

A definite must read for people who love the fantasy genre. It's an especially important read if you want to read dark fantasy done right. I love this author and I can't recommend him enough!

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The Testaments

Three months ago I mentioned my excitement at seeing the long awaited, if somewhat surprising, sequel to the The Handmaid's Tale. When The Testaments dropped on September 10th in my city I was quick to pick a copy up. Sadly, I was not as quick to read it as I was working through my existing reading list at the time and didn't believe rushing things would bring me any benefit. However, I was finally able to get back in to the world Atwood crafted in 1985.

I will admit, I was a little trepidatious at first. I generally am not a fan of sequels published long after the fact, and see them as usually being far inferior to their progenitors. However, I was lucky enough to see an interview with Margaret Atwood hosted live from London at a local theater. In it, I heard  some excerpts read from the book, and an altogether too brief talk with the author about her work and her decisions for writing it after so many years.

Naturally of course, many of them had to do with the current politics in the United States, but they were also influenced by the advent of the Me Too movement, and campaigns for women's rights the world over. It was also because the Handmaid has become a surprisingly popular and effective method of protest. Showing up at pro-Choice rallies, and standing as a silent testament to the suffering women will endure when the rights to their bodies are taken away by men. In that case, how could she not write a sequel to explore more of the world of Gilead?

The Testaments is very different from the original. The original, which told the story through one narrator's view which often included hazy recollections, is now told through three distinct perspectives. They are alternatively called: The Ardua Hall Holograph, Witness 369A and Witness 369B. Each has their own names, but as with the case of identity in much of Atwood's work, those prove to be fluid and I won't spoil anything by using the various identities and pseudonyms characters operate under, save one.

Using three different perspectives to tell the story set in Gilead is, in my opinion, genius. Though only one of the narrators is an adult, all three convey a different set of ideas, cultural upbringings and motivations. Each is quite understandable, sympathetic, and ultimately engaging in keeping you interested in the outcome of these in-universe historical documents.

The one character whose name I will reveal, is that the Ardua Hall Holograph is one of the villains from the first book, the erstwhile leader of the Aunts, the women who control other women in Gilead, Aunt Lydia. Hers is a shocking story, one which shows an amazing insight into what creates an authoritarian regime, what one must do to survive in one, and how one can be brought down. In doing this Atwood effectively wields empathy like a cudgel, as no doubt those who had read the original book or watched the television series felt they could never like or sympathize with a woman who engaged in the wholesale abuse of other women. The story of Aunt Lydia shows this not to be true.

It is a fascinating tale of how indoctrination and reshaping a narrative is used to control and coerce subject populations in authoritarian regimes. We see the start of Gilead, and a great deal of the brutality used to begin the control of women as seen in The Handmaid's Tale. What is fascinating is that, other than the specific roles of Aunts, Handmaid's, Wives, ect, Atwood has drawn almost entirely on real historical precedent for how awful regimes are established and keep power.

As a small aside, this can almost be seen as a snub against those who insist "it can't happen here" or that the United States is somehow immune to the power of authoritarian instigators. Indeed, such an idea has been snubbed as far back as the 1930s in a very literal way. A good message to take from this book, and its predecessors then, are that our democratic rights must be guarded very carefully. Hence the powerful, silent symbolism of the Handmaid.