#6: The Barrow (Mark Smylie)

So I find myself a bit conflicted and at a loss for what to write. I think my status updates on Goodreads for The Barrow are a bit misleading; after all, I didn’t say the Seven Deadly Words or anything. There was more than enough there to keep me going, even if a bit slowly. It did take a long time to finish, even for a 600-page novel.

I think my main problem with the book was pacing, when all is said and done. The book opens with a heist movie prologue — you know what I mean, right? Introduce the characters and what they do while they do a different job than the one they’ll do in the main story. I was quite happy when I figured out what the gimmick to this section was. It’s exciting, and sets up the characters and stakes well, and firmly grounds the novel as a long-form version of an RPG campaign. (In fact, the type of story told here is pretty much what I was planning to run in an Artesia game that never really got off the ground.)

Then, the book floundered a bit with a long, dry city-based bit, introducing new characters, setting things up. Very detailed, and maybe not to its overall benefit. This ends with a good action sequence and then finally the party is on the road, and travelling, and I thought, yes, here we go, only to have the travelling move in fits and starts, through some well-detailed and moderately overexplained fantastic scenery.

Once we get to the eponymous barrow (I’ve tried very hard to avoid spoilers in this review — hope nobody’s upset to find out that they go to a barrow in the book called The Barrow) things tumble forward and, after it’s all said and done, the story quite adeptly opens outward and becomes much wider than it originally appeared.

One more thing. My status updates seemed focused on ridiculous sexual content, so I think I need to talk about this a bit. With a novel based in the same world as the Artesia comics, I knew there would be some sex. I understand why it is there. I’m not a prude, or incapable of enjoying a good sex scene when one comes along. I just think that some of that type of stuff in The Barrow — with the worst being a certain character’s introduction — wasn’t handled as well as it could been, or not well enough to justify its inclusion.

So there we go. A bit disjoint, and I apologize for that. I ended up liking The Barrow — not a lot, but well enough — and I’ll read another if Smylie writes one. It made me pull my copy of the Artesia RPG off the shelf, and until I went looking, I had no idea that there was a new version being worked on…

#4: Twenty Palaces (Harry Connolly)

An indirect recommendation from zarf’s list of books he purchased in the last year. I hadn’t looked at eblong.com for a long time, and was happy to see that he was still doing that list — and happy to see that I could follow him over here as well.

Twenty Palaces is a pretty good gritty urban fantasy. It is a prequel, written after the other three novels were published traditionally; I can’t help but wonder if some of the ambivalence I felt about it might have been different had I read those first. If I had to guess, I’d say that this is the backstory that was set up in the series to slowly come out over time, only not given the chance.

After taking a look at Connolly’s blog, I am wondering if I should start up with the main trilogy or not, seeing as the third ends on a cliffhanger of some sort and there probably won’t be another soon if ever, so… Hrm.

I have some time to make up my mind, I guess.

#3: The Apocalypse Codex (Charles Stross)

Another Laundry novel brings with it the startling realization that I’ve kind of lost track of the Laundry. Somewhere along the way I seem to have stopped storing the ongoing storyline. This book was full of references to things that’d happened before that I only remember dimly.

I enjoy these books a lot, though, so this really just means that once I’m done with my Banks re-read, these are next up. The rating for this one may definitely go up on a more fully-informed re-read.

#2: The Land Across (Gene Wolfe)

For the first time in a long time, I’m just stymied as to what to write about a book. Disjoint thoughts: this is definitely a Gene Wolfe of a piece with the others in this, his current period. Dense and unknowable things happen behind the scenes. There are not one but two persons that only the narrator ever sees or acknowledges, until those rules are broken. Some of it didn’t work well for me; the book it reminded me the most of, The City & the City, was much better at setting up an alien country with sideways rules.

Unreviewable, unratable. If you like Gene Wolfe, it’s worth a read, but then again, if you like Gene Wolfe, you already knew that.(

#32: The Long Tomorrow (Leigh Brackett)

A couple of generations after fire fell from the skies, a young New Mennonite begins to wonder if there’s more to the world than he’s been told. He hears of a place where men are free to think, to learn, and his heart begins to yearn for that freedom…

Now, post-apocalyptic stuff is usually not my thing. This novel is beautifully written, and the prose sets everything up beautifully. In the end, the SF elements are just that, elements; this ends up the story of how one person grows and changes his thinking in different ways.

Definitely the best of the 50s SF anthology so far.

#31: Espedair Street (Iain Banks)

A musician who was once in a world-famous band now lives incognito in a church folly in Glasgow. Something terrible happened to break up the band, and Dave Weir hasn’t gotten over it yet. The story unfolds, half as things come apart in the present, half building up to them coming apart in the past…

I had trouble remembering if I’d read Espedair Street or not. I eventually came down on the side of “have read it” — I think I must’ve gotten it on intra-library loan at some point before I started the book blog. I definitely remembered several things from the later parts of the book, including the meaning of the title.

One reason I was having trouble, though, is that this book is structurally so similar to The Wasp Factory — main character reminisces, goes through a present-day story that includes drinking with strange friends, a revelation, a twist, an epiphany. It almost feels like Banks was trying to show that he could write a novel without any fantastical elements at all — even though the fantastic elements of his first three books were the best parts.

Ending status: this book, as well as his other one published the same year (Consider Phlebas), show that Banks at this point still hadn’t figured out how to stick an ending.