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January In Books

I set out in my goals for 2018 to read twelve books. This is not that many books. I used to serially read books every day or two, but times have changed in terms of how I allocate my time. I accept twelve books is a conservative goal.

In January I got through three books so I am already ahead.

I’ve enjoyed all three of these books but one of these was absolutely brilliant. These are the books, in reverse order, for January.

The Channel Video

This is the video from the YouTube channel which discusses the same topic no doubt with some variations….

#3 – The Four Legendary Kingdoms

I think I read my first Matthew Reilly novel during my first trip to Florida, certainly my second. This was a time when going to the mall to visit Borders to buy books for the holidays because I liked all the US covers was a thing.

The cover for Ice Station caught my eye and the story blurb backed it up and that was it.

I’ve read every Matthew Reilly book since and he’s one of the few authors whose books I buy as soon as they are released, even buying them in hardback when I used to buy physical books (it helped they were always reduced to £10).

I think either I am changing or Matthew Reilly’s books are because while I enjoy them I don’t enjoy them as much as I used to and The Four Legendary Kingdoms exemplifies why.

Jack West, Jnr the intrepid treasure hunter and modern day Indiana Jones, is kidnapped and put through a series of trials along with a bunch of other extraordinary individuals that were the inspiration for the trials of Hercules. The reason for this involves a crazy conspiracy involving he four true leaders of the world, the Four Legendary Kingdoms in the title, and some even crazier shit about the end of the world and a ritual that needs performing.

Matthew Reilly has always written novels pitched as grand Hollywood action films in novel form. That was their selling point, especially since they had the advantage of not being restricted by budgets. The problem is, though I really can’t tell if it is me or the books changing at this point, they’ve become more like scripts in novel form than actual books. The tissue between the action set-pieces becoming more and more anaemic. In The Four Legendary Kingdoms so much of the book is the actual over-inflated action set-pieces of the tests it’s very jarring.

The conspiracy elements in this protagonist’s series of books are particularly eye-rolling. They started pretty crazy in the trilogy of books that launched the Jack West character and due to a need to reveal ever deeper conspiracy layers they get absolutely ludicrous. They are so crazy in this book you find them really hard to connect with and they are the central core of the book.

It’s just all a massive stretch and I am someone who can stretch quit a bit on these things.

They’ve always had a certain ridiculousness to them, but if Ice Station started off closer to Die Hard then Four Legendary Kingdoms is more like one of those trashy straight-to-DVD films that if you watch at all you instantly forget.

I think I may be done with Matthew Reilly novels. They really don’t work for me any more. Even the action scenes are starting to feel just like an overblown series of events that don’t feel exciting, they’re just too much.

#2 – Waking Gods (Themis Files)

I read Waking Gods because I really enjoyed Sleeping Giants. Sleeping Giants I found while doing one of my periodic searches for a book to read and it was on one of those must read books of 2017 or some such.

That was probably a mistake.

Sleeping Gods had a high concept set-up. A young child falls into a sink hole and discovers a giant robotic hand, jump forward to when she is an adult and she finds herself on a research project to understand and assemble the whole robot. The story is told as an oral history, World War Z style, mixing up a series of interviews, reports and other documentary products to tell the story.

Sleeping Gods wasn’t as good as World War Z but the way the book was constructed did work. It seemed the techno-thriller and discovery nature of the book really worked for the format. It didn’t work so much in Waking Gods.

I found Waking Gods hard to get through.

The trouble with Waking Gods is it didn’t feel like a story that flowed naturally with the outcomes feeling like a series of natural events. It felt like you could feel the author thinking what he needs to do in order to make it exciting, to shift the character dynamics and prepare for the third book, and then just does it and you don’t feel like those decisions have been justified in the story. Two people die in the story and there is no sense of loss, it’s just a rather abrupt mechanical decision in both cases.

One is even meant to be a noble and meaningful sacrifice but it really doesn’t seem earned. It also feels a bit rushed.

The oral history approach also started to get old. The trouble with an oral history approach is it introduces a certain distance to the storytelling. It’s hard for it to be immediate and very personal. This problem can be overcome by using certain constructs in an oral history, such as highly personal diary entries, but it just doesn’t work in Waking Gods. I must admit, I started to do that fast reading thing across some of the oral history elements, even the personal diary entries, as while they were supposed to add the emotional depth to the story they just felt like someone waffling on forever.

The arrival of multiple giant robots around the world, essentially an invasion, should have played well to the World War Z approach to the book. It does, but you rarely feel the full impact of it. The robots spend most of their time just stood in place. There is only one robot fight and it’s not overly that exciting. The different recordings of the fight needed to be cut together better. It plays out like a relatively dry retelling.

In short, the book never gets that exciting and doesn’t draw you in enough. It needed to be more visceral and immediate and the author didn’t use the oral history elements well enough to get that feel across for me.

I read it. I got through it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it but it wasn’t the page turner of the original novel and leaves me in a strange place as to whether I would try the third book.

#1 Uprooted

The fact I read Uprooted at all is an outcome of how I now select my books.

When you shift to reading all your books on the Kindle two things occur. First, the marketing tools like the cover of a book to catch your eye on the shelf is significantly less of a factor. Second, anyone can publish a book on the Kindle so curating and selecting books is a problem. There is a lot of crap.

You’d think the result would be I’d end up reading a lot of rubbish, the opposite happens as you go for signals of quality. I’ve been using various books to read this year lists, getting recommendations from Twitter and also picking things that have been nominated or won awards. The results have been amazing as I’ve read some really good books.

Uprooted is one of those books. It’s just amazing. It is a thing of beauty.

Uprooted starts being about a village and a Wizard’s tower in which lives a Wizard known as The Dragon. The village is surrounded by a forest in which dark things live. Every ten years the Dragon selects a girl from the village and takes her to his tower and after ten years they leave…completely changed.

This construct is used to tell a perfectly paced and layered story that is enthralling.

The relationship between the Agnieszka, the girl selected from the village, and The Dragon is really well done. This element of the story is essentially a Beauty and the Beast tale. The developing relationship between Agnieszka and The Dragon is very well done as it is used to develop both characters. The Dragon becomes more human and in turn Agnieszka starts to question how the previous chosen ones changed and what that means for her and her life.

The cleverness of the book is the dynamic between the two characters isn’t the only narrative onion you’re peeling away, there are two others in orbit of that central dynamic: the forest and the larger world.
The forest is absolutely fascinating. It starts off purely as the typical fantasy forest, a sort of Mirkwood, full of nasty creatures. You think it’s just a background element at first, but it isn’t. The forest turns out to be a character in itself. It is malevolent, scheming and dangerous with it’s own goals and minions to achieve its own ends. While not being in anyway Cthulhuloid in nature it has that feel in its ever present, eternally feeling, hell-bent on human destruction nature. While the reason for the forests existence, once revealed, could be said to be a standard trope, you don’t really mind it’s done that well and there is some real, emotional impact to it.

Yes, that’s right, that forest you thought was just a geographical setting elements turns out to be an over-arching character of menace.

As the relationship between Agnieszka and The Dragon unfolds, along with the battle with the forest, these events also introduce us to the wider world in an impeccably paced way. It’s just really well done. The story widens out from being a small, isolated village fairy tale to one of national politics and this isn’t jarring or problematic as it feels perfectly natural in one instance and also a deftly handled part of the whole. It works because it plays into how Agnieszka grows as a character as this opening up to wider world is why the previous girls changed and is central to the conflict of Agnieszka holding on to what she sees as valuable about her smaller village life.

Uprooted is part fairy tale. Part epic fantasy story. If you like the Beauty and the Beast film you should certainly read Uprooted. If you just phenomenally good books then you should read Uprooted. It’s just one of the best books I’ve read. Period.

And, Finally…

I’m really enjoying this era of reading. It began in 2017 really and I’ve read some really great books. Like really good books. I feel like it is a new golden age, though I realise this is probably more due to my selection rather than the books actually being released.

While two of the books in January haven’t stood up to the classics I’ve read like Children of Time, All Our Wrong Todays and Uprooted you can’t hit a classic every time. Overall though, due to careful selection, I am now reading books that are simply some of the best I’ve read. They are original, clever and just astounding and it’s great.

About Ian O'Rourke

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