Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

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I picked Mistborn: The Final Empire up because I’d recently been to the Gollancz Festival and this book was one of four given a special hardback edition to celebrate their tenth birthdays. I’d already read and loved The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (my favourite book of all time, and one I just can’t put into the right words for a blog) and The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. The fourth in that set is The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd, who turns out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met/been shoved into a conversation with but the book itself is one I haven’t managed to convinced myself to try yet.

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is the first real post on my shiny new book blog, the others having been imported untidily from my travel & adventure blog, I Am A Polar Bear. So yay?

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In the corner of the world I live in, people really like Neil Gaiman and it feels like such a cliche to add my voice to that. But the first book I read in 2016 was his American Gods and then, idiot that I am, I thought I’d go and read more about it. I soon learnt that there are in fact plenty of people who are not fans so I’ll write about it after all.

American Gods is a huge doorstopper of a book and I own the Author’s Preferred version, which has 12,000 extra words sprinkled throughout it. I’m not generally a huge fan of enormous books like that. By the time I’m halfway through, I’ve forgotten the beginning and I’m starting to wish the book would just finish already. But American Gods works as a big book. That might – or might not – be because no one, not even the author, really knows what it’s meant to be. It’s a bit fantasy, a bit scifi, a bit horror, a bit thriller, a bit murder mystery, a bit road trip, a bit coming-of-age story and that’s borne out by the fact that it’s won the Hugo, Nebula and Bram Stoker awards, which are literary awards for three different genres.

It’s a big book and a big twisting story that wanders across the USA, it has some horrible moments (one that I spend two-thirds of the book dreading and then hastily skip over when it finally arrives), it’s magic and mystery and belief and murder and fantasy and truth… and I love it. I don’t know what exactly appeals to me so much but I’ll go back to this book pretty regularly. I like some of Gaiman’s other books but none of them have my heart the way this one does, except Good Omens, which is quite the literary gateway drug.

The Once & Future King by TH White

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When I was eleven or so I won a prize at school. I can no longer remember what the prize was for but I remember that it was book tokens and I went into Ottakers and spent what felt like a huge amount of money on a huge, grown-up beautiful book, which I devoured and loved fiercely as a teenager and have discovered I still very much love. The Lies of Locke Lamora is my favourite book of recent years; TH White’s The Once and Future King is my favourite book of all time.

The Once and Future King, technically, is five books. You all know of the first one – The Sword in the Stone which became a Disney film. It’s part historical (in as much as it can be when Arthur probably never existed and Merlyn certainly didn’t, or at least he wasn’t a real wizard), part fantasy, part philosophy and a tiny bit comedy. It was very much a literary step up for me at that age. I don’t really remember what I was reading then other than Watership Down (never again!), the Animals of Farthing Wood series (never again also!) and Enid Blyton but I was one of the best readers in my year and by eleven or twelve I was definitely beyond Malory Towers and the like. Maybe the YA of the time. Had I discovered Jilly Cooper by then? Probably not quite. I think most of my schoolmates were reading Goosebumps around then. I never did because I’ve never liked horror. But The Once and Future King was a proper serious big grown-up book and quite what made me not only successfully read the thing at that age but also love it, I don’t know.

It starts off with King Arthur’s childhood, when he’s an adopted and semi-feral child better known as Wart and moves through Arthur’s life – coronation, marriage, the Round Table and the adventures of assorted members and ends with his death, hence the title. Merlyn, Arthur’s teacher and mentor, figures highly throughout. He lives backwards through time and can therefore comment on Arthur’s country using points of reference from the twentieth century – there is at one point a quite blatant discussion about Hitler. Merlyn is somewhat short-tempered, his magic is a little less than reliable and he has a talking owl called Archimedes who does not like being called Archie.

My favourite character as a teenager was Lancelot, who is brave and kind and ugly and wonderful and also full of angst and pain, not least because he’s having an affair with Arthur’s wife and is head-over-heels in love with Arthur himself. Lancelot takes everything very seriously, he’s very religious and he was probably incredibly hard work to be around. Arthur’s mind is mostly on how best to rule and how to solve the problems of various wars, battles and feuds around his Round Table, which stars a wonderful cast of knights ranging from the villainous to the angelic to the downright daft.

My other favourites – for they come as a group and you can’t pick one of them out – are the Orkney kids. Four red-headed Scottish boys, all stuffed full of Oedipus complex who love and hate Arthur. There’s their leader, the eldest, the big tough guy with a heart of gold, Gawaine. There’s Agravaine, the bully and the coward and the skittish one. Gaheris who, to be fair, doesn’t get to do much apart from up the numbers. And Gareth, the youngest and fairest and sweetest. They spend a lot of the second book scuttling around, telling stories in the dark, having adventures in an attempt to impress their mother and I just really enjoy them.

Last year, when I had a fortnight in a tent in Iceland, I took it with me as an excellent book for being chunky enough to last a while, not so chunky that I’d get sick of it and one that I already knew I liked. I’d get into the tent before it got cold and lie there reading this book and most nights, I dreamed about knights. If I’d known it was going to have that effect, I’d have taken Sagas of Icelanders and dreamed about Vikings. Only twice can I think of times when I’ve dreamed about books, both times nightmares. When I was about fourteen – and therefore more than old enough to know better – I had a nightmare about Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets. Not the film, the book. I won’t see the film. It contains a scene that’s too emetophobe-unfriendly. And in 2011 I had a nightmare about Christopher Brookmyre’s Pandaemonium, which, to be fair, was fairly high octane nightmare fuel. But no, nice dreams about knights in armour with swords. Nothing more specific. When I was eleven, that book looked like a massive thing and now it’s about standard fantasy size and much more readable than a lot of fantasy.

So, in short, I really love The Once and Future King and have done for a long time and I highly recommend it (but please don’t tell me if you don’t like it because I want to remain under the illusion that everyone loves everything I love).

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

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I’ve had my eye on the Song of Ice and Fire series for quite a while. I bought A Game of Thrones at least a year ago but it’s been sitting on my shelves* since then because it just looked too big and heavy and intimidating to pick up. I’ve been reading a lot of Icelandic sagas and while I think they’re worth the effort, they are a lot of effort. They’re like the Icelandic equivalent of Shakespeare –  a good couple of hundred years older but stories that form part of the culture and history of the country, written in an old and tough language that has just enough similarity to the modern language to be able to read with a little difficulty, full of murder and romance and humour, stories that have clung on and remained relevant despite their age. The Icelandic sagas, I stubbornly maintain, are a huge influence on modern fantasy. I refuse to believe that the Lord of the Rings would be anything like it is if Tolkien hadn’t been so keen on the Nordic stories and there’s a very obvious blueprint for the Middle Earth stories in the Volsung Saga – a cursed ring, a dragon guarding treasure and a broken sword re-forged just to start with. Do read Volsung Saga. It’s amazing – truly one of my favourite books that I’ve read in the last five years. And Tolkien has had a huge influence on modern fantasy, whether it’s people emulating his style and his world or deliberately going in the opposite direction.

My point is that I was expecting A Game of Thrones to feel a bit like the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s Saga in particular. Njal’s Saga is one I found particularly hard work. It’s one of Iceland’s Big Three, it’s possibly the most popular and it’s the one I enjoyed least. It’s about two best friends, Njal and Gunnar, and the first chunk is about the terrible wives they take, who promptly start a war, murdering members of the other’s household while Njal and Gunnar grit their teeth and swear their wives’ feud is not going to affect their friendship. But then it descends into endless murdering and even worse, a huge long legal battle. That’s pretty much what I expected of A Game of Thrones. But everyone was talking about it, whether because they’d read the books or because they were watching the TV series and I was feeling increasingly left out. What finally broke me was finishing the massive book I’d spent the best part of two months on and picking up a new one (The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan, if you must know) because the moment I did, I wished I’d started A Game of Thrones instead. I don’t know why that broke me, I only knew that suddenly I didn’t have a vague hope of reading it at some point but instead a desperate desire to read it now.

I’m so glad I gave into what was effectively peer pressure. I realised within the first two pages that this was far more readable than I’d ever expected, welcoming and easy, rich but rarely uncomfortably dense. I think I’d expected it to be never-ending war but the war and the fighting didn’t begin until surprisingly late and it took its time to introduce characters that you could actually get to know. The character-per-chapter format worked absolutely fine for me – it’s a huge story and it made perfect sense to go around the world, seeing what was going on with each person as it progressed.

When I first bought it, I looked at the character lists and was instantly put off but it was much easier than I expected, partly because I’d seen someone offer the advice of something along the lines of “don’t worry about remembering all the minor characters”, partly because the characters’ names were far easier than the endless lists you get in sagas and partly because I’ve seen so many pictures from the TV series that I already had an idea of who some of them were. Not that you can get much more than a face and a name from that – the nature of the various Lannisters in particular took me by surprise and Maester Aemon had me squeaking at my desk after lunch on Friday. I’m not quite ready to pledge allegience to House Targaryen quite yet but given that I’ve worn a little silver dragon around my neck since I was about sixteen, I’m inclined to. But I’ve heard George RR Martin does the “shades of grey” thing and therefore, on the basis of one book in a series of eventually seven (I think), it’s not time just yet to decide who’s good and evil because I bet it all looks very different later on.

In the meantime, this book tickles the same part of me that fell in love with TH White’s Once and Future King when I was ten or so – I reread the whole thing in my tiny tent in Iceland last summer and dreamed incessantly about knights and battles and while the characters are obviously completely different in A Game of Thrones, it feels like it has a similar soul. It’s certainly similar enough to have also had me dreaming about it twice – once something about snow that I couldn’t really remember the next day and once about the Stark children in my house murdering people. Bear in mind there are only two other books in my entire life that I’ve dreamed about and those were both nightmares (Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets when I was about fourteen and far too old to be scared by kids’ books, don’t laugh at me for that, and Christopher Brookmyre’s Pandaemonium in 2011 when I was definitely too old to be scared by a book. It was the skull-and-spine mace that did it for me).

Finally, I think I can’t not mention how vividly I can see some of this. I didn’t even know Robb Stark existed but I can see him so clearly in my mind. Jon Snow too, and he doesn’t look anything like Kit Harington. I felt like I was actually at the Eyrie and I could see straight out of the sky cells. Arya is wonderful – I can identify quite strongly with Arya, and you know what? I actually really love that despite doing the very non-traditional, non-feminine thing – wearing fighting leathers, learning to use a sword, refusing to wear a dress and brush her hair and so on, she’s still adamant that she’s a girl. That delights me because, particularly when you live in a world where girls are expected to look and be and act traditionally feminine, it would be very easy to start trying to identify as a boy and she doesn’t, she recognises that there’s no reason why a girl can’t do these things as well. Oh, and Dany, I love you so much but you were so stupid to not realise what else would be involved in the price. I generally don’t see things coming but I saw that and you were a fool not to.

I have just one major problem with this series. Because I bought the first book quite a while ago, it’s been living separately from the rest of the series, which I only bought last week in a panicked moment of “I do like this series after all, I do want to read the rest of them and I want the whole series to match so I need to buy them all right now before the traditional covers disappear!”. Now that it’s rejoined the rest of them, I’ve discovered A Game of Thrones is shorter and narrower but fatter than its siblings. So that’s my complaint, that despite my best efforts, my set of books doesn’t match perfectly. Still, it matches a lot better than my Gentleman Bastard books, of which one is a fairly standard size paperback, one is a giant heavyweight paperback and one is a hardback (it’s a Scott Lynch series, read it, it’s awesome – The Lies of Locke Lamora is my absolute favourite book of the last ten years beyond any doubt).

And now I’ve told you everything I feel about A Game of Thrones (except – dragons! There were dragons! I wasn’t entirely expecting actual dragons!) and everything I’ve felt about all the other books I’ve ever read, I shall away.

*in one of the several piles at the bottom of my shelves, having run out of space on the shelves themselves about a decade ago