Friday, 31 July 2015

Half A King, by Joe Abercrombie

4 stars

The youngest son of King Uthric of Gettland, Yarvi was always meant for a life as a minister. Destiny, however, has other plans and when his father and older brother meet their untimely deaths, Yarvi is called to the Black Chair.

Not a popular king – as well as his youth, Yarvi faces prejudice due to his half-formed left hand – one of Yarvi’s first lessons in kingship is in how hard it is to hang on to your throne. Especially when even those closest to you can’t be trusted. And so starts a quest for vengeance that sees Yarvi travel strange lands, in the company of strange companions, learning that you don’t have to be a fighter to be dangerous.

Clearly written for a slightly younger audience than his usual, Half A King is still recognisably Abercombie (if a little less bleak...but only a little) – a proper page-turner with plenty of banter, betrayals and blood, brilliant characters that are full of personality, desperate situations, deep friendships, and a main character that isn’t a perfect white knight but a flawed human being who makes mistakes and doesn’t always learn from them. For me, however, Yarvi wasn’t the star of this book. That honour goes to Nothing, who’s the sort of character that Abercrombie excels in creating and who wouldn’t be out of place amongst his Northmen (I reckon he could have been great mates with my old favourite, Cracknut Whirrun).

Having torn through this in two sittings (thank you, Joe, for helping me get my reading mojo back!), I’m now straight on to the next.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Circles of Hell, by Dante

2.5 stars

Some years ago, I bought a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but a rather academic and intimidating introduction saw me soon putting it back down again. This Little Black Classic was the perfect taster, comprising as it does a sort of ‘Greatest Hits’ of a handful of cantos from Inferno.

I was surprised to find how easy this was to read in comparison to that dreadfully off-putting introduction from so many years ago, with a rich and evocative use of language that sometimes amused as well as conjuring hellish images (particularly when a thief came out with the terribly modern sounding ‘It pisses me right off’). However, the fact that this comprised only a handful of pieces of the whole also meant that big leaps were often taken between cantos, meaning that I’d often start a new one completely flummoxed as to how we’d got there. Additionally, it seems that it was largely taken for granted at the time that we would know the people and images Dante was conjuring up – aside from recognising the name of Judas Iscariot and the Emperor Constantine (thank you, Inheritance of Rome!) these all remained meaningless to me.

And so, in conclusion, while I’m glad that I read this (even if it was at a time when I was entering my very own personal Circles of Hell, from which it didn’t provide much relief) I think my copy of the Divine Comedy might continue to gather dust for a few more years yet.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham

3 stars

Covering a whopping great 600 years of history, it's small wonder that this book took two months to read. Whilst some of that was at least partially the fault of my daily life becoming increasingly demanding and therefore not yielding up half as much reading time as I'd had before, it's also due to the staggering amount of information imparted. 

Taking us from the fall of the Roman Empire up until the year 1000 and the so-called 'Feudal Revolution', this took in the post Roman States and cultures that grew out of this fall, including looks at the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Vikings, the Merovingians and Carolingians, as well many more that I'd never even heard of before. Examining tax systems, religions, economies and exchange systems, iconography and much, much more, it seems that Chris Wickham left no stone unturned when writing this book. The only thing really missing is much on what life was like for the unpowerful (other than probably rather hard), thanks to the dearth of evidence on this aspect of life as contemporary chroniclers couldn't have given two shits about their lives and preferred to concentrate on the kings and other noblemen that were constantly blinding one another (apparently a preferred way of eliminating rivals for centuries, thanks to a commonly held belief that a ruler should be 'whole').

The jumping around in time and place, along with the lack of any real common narrative drive sometimes helped to hinder my progress as I found myself having to concentrate far more on all of the incidental facts and opinions presented in order to make them stick (as it is, I'd still be hard pushed to tell you anything I learned with any sort of specificity, and would probably be reduced to statements like 'the Vandals were well lairy', and 'aristocrats have always been a complete shower of shits'), but it certainly succeeded in helping me to decide which groups I'm interested in reading more on (that'll be all the ones beginning with the letter V).