Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls is a fantasy novel set in the murky depths of the Anglo Saxon Dark Ages. Jack, the son of a lame Saxon farmer and his far smarter, wiser wife, is taken on as an apprentice by the village bard. Said bard is a man who turns out to have terrible enemies…
Sea of Trolls smoothly merges archaeological fact and myth to powerful effect. I suppose you’d call it ‘middle grade’ fiction but there’s plenty for older children and grown-ups to love. The characters (especially the shield maiden Thorgil and the lovably murderous berserker Olaf) are memorable, the stories from the Norse sagas and Beowulf are slyly and sometimes funnily re-told and I really didn’t want it to end. Fortunately, it turned out to be the first part of a trilogy continued in The Land of the Silver Apples and The Islands of the Blessed.
Zero History is William Gibson’s conclusion to the loose trilogy that started with Pattern Recognition and continued in Spook Country. Hubertus Bigend, enigmatic owner of the Blue Ant agency is after a particularly secretive ‘anti-brand’ of denim, a kind of branding ‘negative space’, he explains (not particularly clearly). With Gibson, a lot of the effect depends on how you respond to his highly stylised prose. Like the concerns of his characters, he depends a lot on surface and detail to generate his effects and this is either enthralling or cloying. Part of the problem for first-timers to Gibson and of lovers of Neuromancer et al is the extent to which you can get worked up about a pair of trousers. Though, this being Gibson, it’s really about something else altogether. The main change, though, is the degree to which he’s become a chronicler of the times rather than a prophet of them.
Howard Mittelmark’s and Sandra Newman’s How Not To Write A Novel describes 200 mistakes guaranteed to stop your book from ever being published.The advice is sound and frequently brutal. They’re especially good on plot and POV (it’s forced me to take a long, hard look at my own plotting and the results aren’t pretty) but most of all, the book’s laugh-out-loud, partner-giving-you-hard-looks-in-bed funny.
I hadn’t noticed that Jeanette Winterson had started writing children’s books. Her The Battle of the Sun is set in London at the end of Elizabeth’s long reign where another Jack (what is it with the name ‘Jack’?) is kidnapped by a mysterious Magus who threatens London with a truly apocalyptical alchemical fate. Winterson is as stylistically distinctive as Gibson but it’s a poetry of metaphor and allusion as opposed to Gibson’s recursive surfaces. Still, The Battle of the Sun unfolds at a breakneck pace and generates a credible sense of adventure, though the heroine from the previous Tanglewreck feels a little stitched in. I’ve no idea how a nine or ten year would deal with the formidable learning on display and everyone from Blake to Marlowe to Calvino is recklessly and creatively plundered but the end result is 100% Winterson, for better or worse. I enjoyed it and I’d recommend it but it felt hard to love.
I tried to read a Jack Reacher novel and failed. I couldn’t get over the idea that a) Robert Parker’s Spencer would eat him for breakfast and b) Robert Parker would have seen off the whole doorstep of a novel in half the time. I’m also wading through a Darren Shah novel – first in a series called the Demonata. It’s efficient but really, you could be reading Diane Wynne Jones.