Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

On one of my random lunchtime bookshop trips I found this beauty on sale for half price and decided to pick up a copy. I thought I’d heard about it from someone on YouTube but, after some research, I’m pretty sure that I was mistaking it for another book. Nevertheless, I found myself at the starting point of a few uninspiring novels and, after being excited by the writing in the final sentence of the first page, I started my journey.

Half a King is fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie’s first foray in the ever growing world of Young Adult Fantasy. It is the first in the Shattered Sea trilogy and Abercrombie introduces us to Yarvi, Prince of Gettland, who, thanks to a disability since birth, has remained an outsider in a kingdom that values strength over all else. Just as Yarvi is on the cusp of giving up his right to the throne he is informed that both his father and elder brother have been killed, forcing him to take the Black Throne. Before Yarvi is able to get his head around his new position he finds himself betrayed; his chair stolen from under him whilst he is sold into slavery. What follows is his bull-headed quest for freedom and ultimate revenge.
Abercrombie, like many fantasy authors, is clearly trying to build on some of George RR Martin’s success and plays the Tyrion Lannister card with his hero Yarvi. Unable to rely on the physical prowess that both his father and brother have in spades, the young Prince has spent years moulding his mind and training for the Ministry. Yarvi is an interesting character and his growth along his journey is certainly something worth following. He has something of an everyman quality about him and is somebody that readers would definitely sympathise and identify with.
However, I have to question Abercrombie’s inclusion of the disability. For the most part it only figures as a way for the writer to further the plot and create the correct environment for the narrative to work. Throughout his journey Yarvi becomes a stronger and more self-confident leader but there is never any real acceptance of his physical impairment. There is a slight hint that he becomes less bothered by other people’s response to it but he still lets it control his life. I’d much rather there had been a moment of utter acceptance where, like Tyrion Lannister advises in Game of Thrones, Yarvi is able to “wear it like armour”. Instead it becomes nothing more than a dull and unnecessary literary device from a writer unwilling to look deeper to give his main character flaws.
This is a problem I see throughout Half a King: it just doesn’t go far enough. There is very little character development except in the group Yarvi spends the majority of his time. The novel is narrated from Yarvi’s point of view so the only understandings we have of people are the often childish insights he offers us. We learn some of their history but hear nothing of their drive or dreams beyond what they tell Yarvi, which, in order to move the plot forward, is very little. None of these characters really exist in their own right and are only included to move Yarvi’s story forward instead of participate. The desire to keep the plot moving forward has led Abercrombie to ignore any of the pesky but desirable exposition and deeper exploration of the people he is presenting to us.
Now I realise that in terms of good fantasy we have been spoiled by the like of Tolkien and George RR because of their unfailing conviction to the world they create. I mean these writers both immersed themselves, their characters and, most importantly, their readers in a rich and ancient world with its own languages, customs and complicated geography. Abercrombie takes very little time within the novel to develop the ideas of the world he has created. We get a sense of the Viking-like people and their focus on war but, other than the brief stops Yarvi’s ship makes when he is enslaved, we don’t get to see much of the wider world. We get references to the history thanks to the elf-ruins the group come across but, as with so many parts of the story, these are forgotten about as quickly as they are introduced. I can only hope that Abercrombie is opening up the world in his future novels because without any amount of depth there is little to keep the reader engrossed in this setting.
Now I realise this all sounds very negative but I did find myself wanting to finish this book. The reason that so many of these areas are underdeveloped is because Abercrombie is so focused on ensuring that the plot is continually moving forward. I guess that is my one criticism of both Tolkien and George RR: the pair is known to keep their heroes from reaching their destination with whatever distractions that they could find. Half a King is fast-paced and always moving towards its ultimate goal with the same tenacity and blind-sightedness of its main character. It is a positive that means the novel is an easy read that keeps the reader involved.
Abercrombie has a gift for description and some of his imagery is beautiful.  It is also the first time I have experienced such decent action sequences in a written work. As much as I enjoyed the ASOIAFseries so far I have to say that Martin’s skill doesn’t exactly lie in his fight sequences or battles. Half a King doesn’t include a great number of heavy action sequences but those that do arise are handled pretty deftly by the writer. They are drawn with care and attention and are planned out to ensure a lack of confusion for the reader.
Ultimately, Half a King is a good read if a little unadventurous. The novel was just never going to live up to the hype surrounding Abercrombie’s first YA novel. Despite the excellent writing on display, there are obvious flaws. It is annoyingly simplistic, perhaps a consequence of the different audience. I think for most of my reading I imagined Yarvi as a much younger child than he was meant to be because his actions and thoughts seem so childish. If it weren’t for the moments of violence I would have genuinely believed I was reading a book meant for pre-teens. Even the story is less complicated than I think the audience deserved and the so-called ‘surprising’ plot-twist became obvious about half-way into the novel.
Of course this could all just the curse of the first in a series. Without a doubt this is a solid foundation for Abercrombie’s future novels and there are several plot points that were hinted at that could create some exciting work. The slow introduction of Christianity above the multiple ancient Gods is something that was occasionally hinted at so I’m hoping Abercrombie has a plan for this development later. However, there are certain things that he would need to work on whilst continuing. I can only hope that there is more depth to the two further novels of the Shattered Sea series.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

I first read about this book on Huffington Post months ago and I spent weeks searching every bookshop to track down a copy. Of course I could have just clicked a few buttons on a certain website but I’m trying to avoid it. By the time I actually found a copy IRL I was too far into The First Fifteen Lives of Harry Augustto finally sink my teeth in. Suffice it to say that I powered through that novel in order to finally read the book I’d been desperate to get my hands on. Every day beforehand, I was drawn to the beautiful, metallic cover art and prayed it would be as delightful as it sounded.

Rene Denfeld has spent the majority of her life working with the men convicted of serious crimes. In her first work of fiction, The Enchanted, she draws upon her experiences as a death row investigator to tell the story of a rundown American prison. Narrated by a nameless inmate, it brings together the interweaving stories of the many inmates and employees. The most prominent of these being the connected stories of York, a convict ready to face his fate; the lady, an investigator hired to get him off; and the disgraced priest she is drawn to and who is secretly falling in love with her.

The Enchanted is, without a doubt, a fucking beautifully written book. Denfeld is able to use the English language in such an mind-boggling way that even the horrific events that are being described seem wondrous. There is plenty of room to make comparisons with Alice Sebold and The Lovely Bones and the overall effect of the novel is equally haunting. Denfeld’s lyrical prose is some of the most exciting work I’ve read in a long time. I finished it a matter of days ago and I’ve already lost count of the people I’ve tried to force to read it. Seriously I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m fucking obsessed. 
Our narrator is an avid reader who uses the scant selection of books available to him to escape his current situation and the events that led to his incarceration. He finds the freedom that he both cannot achieve and cannot handle within the work of these author’s. Our convict has further removed himself from the atrocities of prison life by establishing himself in a fantastical world where golden horses run free, small men hammer in the walls and flibber gibbets feed off the warmth of death. Don’t worry if this all sounds a bit Roald Dhal to you: The Enchanted is kind of a mix between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Green Mile.
The narrator uses his deep understanding of human nature and his handy omniscience to analyse the behaviour of the other inhabitants of the prison. Most importantly the convicted killer York who has agreed to give up his fight for reprieve and is ready to die. Unfortunately, the lady has been hired to do exactly the opposite of that. Through her investigation, the lady looks back over both York and her own difficult upbringings and asks the question of what determines the kind of person we will turn out to be. Her personal experiences allow her to see the person behind the horrible crime and understand some of the factors that push people into such despicable acts.
The Enchanted introduces us to that moral grey area between good and bad and asks the reader to decide who they should sympathise with. There is humanity amongst those who are guilt of carrying out the most inhumane acts and, vice versa, those in positions of power are easily corrupted. The Enchanted is dealing with identity and reality: the parts of themselves that people show and the parts that they keep hidden. Both the narrator and the lady have the ability to see beyond an unpleasant exterior and find the story and beauty hidden underneath.
Denfeld introduces us to some contemptible people and holds a mirror up to a corrupt and dangerous world of prison life. However, through her enthralling prose she shows us that there are two sides to every story.  We discover that no matter how clear someone’s tale may seem there is always something lurking beneath the surface to change everything. Nobody’s story is complete. Even stuck in the dark, damp dungeon, our narrator is able to use his imagination to transcend his miserable existence and become part of something exquisite. Once I’d entered the enchanted world I didn’t exactly find myself in a hurry to leave it.
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Last year, HarperCollins launched their Austen Project with the release of Joanna Trollope’s updated version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The project was clearly born out of a well-thought out marketing strategy to take the hard earned pennies off both the modern writer’s pre-existing fans and Austen lovers whilst introducing her works to people scared of dipping their toes into Romantic era prose. However, the publication of the first in the series didn’t offer the resounding success that the firm were clearly hoping for. The major reaction tended to be that, whilst the novel was fairly well written and very tounge-in-cheek, it was all a bit pointless. Back in March this year, the second modernisation was released: an update of the under-appreciated Northanger Abbey, a novel Austen wrote in her youth, by crime writer Val McDermid. Northanger Abbeyis my favourite Jane Austen novel (not that it means a lot coming from an Austen cynic such as myself) so there was a lot more riding on this than the previous attempt.

Northanger Abbeywas the story of the young and sheltered Catherine Morland who, after indulging in a youth of exciting literature, is introduced to high society with fairly disastrous consequences. The novel offered the usual portrait of a society obsessed with finding the right husband whilst also introducing a comedic element revolving around the relationship between fact and fiction in the minds of young women. The first half fits the mould that became the standard for her later work but the second half is an incredibly witty satire of the much feared Gothic writing that was popular with young people at the time.
In her rewriting of the classic, Val McDermid, seasoned crime writer, makes the inspired decision to transport the action over the Scottish borders and have the Edinburgh festival stand in for the pump room in Bath. Her Catherine becomes Cat who finds the move from sleepy Piddle Valley to the vibrant festival circuit a revelation that she continually shares via her social media accounts. Along the way she meets and falls head over heels for the mysterious lawyer Henry Tilney who has pretty much descended into an amalgamation of every character Hugh Grant played in the 90s and early 00s. With few friends in her home town, Cat is delighted to make the acquaintance of flashy Bella Thorpe but, in order to keep her friend happy, she must put up with her obnoxious, self-obsessed brother Johnny (basically Spencer Matthews from Made in Chelsea).
As in Trollope’s rewriting, the novel stays extremely close to the original and there are moments when McDermid copies scenes word-for-word from Austen’s text. For the most part it feels like she isn’t really bothering to try. There is hardly anything within this update that will keep people aware of Austen’s novel gripped to the tale. There is only one occasion where the author is forced to deviate from the original and, I have to admit, it was a fairly interesting way of dealing with General Tilney’s sudden change of heart.  
 Aside from this brief moment, there has been no real effort made to update the text and it still fails to fully fit into its new setting. To balance this discomfort, there are copious references to the modern world and the teenage Cat is never without her smart phone and posts selfies to her Facebook account any chance that she gets. This raises problems of its own, however, when problems arise that could easily be solved with a simple text or phone call. McDermid is forced to make odd choices in order to ensure that the novel progresses as it did in the original.
Despite all of these incessant references and in-jokes, there still remains the problem that modern teenage girls don’t have the same worries as they did in Austen’s day. Relationships may still be a core issue but marriage and planning for the future are less vital. The Cat Morland of McDermid’s novel is a stranger to both 19th century society and the society that the author is trying to emulate. The way that she talks and acts just seem slightly alien and even the way she falls for Henry has an incredibly old-fashioned edge to it.  She can use the word “totes” as many times as she likes but McDermid has failed to get into the head of a teenage girl in 2014.
Now this isn’t an issue that I’m blaming McDermid for: I just think it’s nearly impossible for an adult author to write completely accurate teenage characters. It was a problem that I found with John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars when I finally jumped on the bandwagon. Now I am loathe to criticise Green because I have adored him since my first viewing of VlogBrothers. However, I found his teenagers just felt unnatural. The best moments in my opinion were the one concerning Hazel’s parents, which is probably because that is the perspective that John Green has.
Without wishing to criticise the skill of Val McDermid too much, I found her attempt to portray teenage girls at best humorously bad and at worst cringey. The relationship between Cat and Bella pretty much descends into the pair talking referring to each other as “girlfriend” which, unless I’m mistaken, has real validity outside of these characters race. You wouldn’t meet this version of Cat, Bella or Elinor in the modern world because they have been lifted from a strange alternate reality where technology advanced but social structures, beliefs and sensibilities stayed in the 19th century.  
Considering what a fantastic character Austen’s Catherine was McDermid really ruined her for me. Cat spends most of the first half getting a bitcarried away but it isn’t until the second section that the character really beings to unravel. The contemporary author really struggles to translate the Gothic satire into her modern setting. There would have been adequate opportunity for McDermid to call on her experience with crime fiction to transpose Catherine’s imagined murder mystery into a contemporary setting. Unfortunately, where Catherine Morland devoured Ann Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho (an excellent if challenging read if I may say so), Cat Morland reads Twilight and other teenage fantasy romance. Clearly McDermid is having her own fun with modern YA fiction but the narrative progression creates problems.
The plot demands that Cat is shown to have become so engrossed with these tales that they take control of her unworldly imagination. We are expected to believe that Cat is so taken with these works that she readily believes that the youthful General Tinley, a Falklands veteran, is in fact a vampire. In fact, that his whole family, including the dreamy Henry, are vampires. Now I could easily handle Catherine Morland letting her imagination run wild in the desolate and Gothic Abbey after reading too much Radcliffe. However, I refuse to believe that anyone, even a teenager in 2014, would happily hypothesise that mysterious people are vampires.
Simply put, McDermid has made the fatal mistake of turning the once naive and trusting Catherine Morland into the unforgivably stupid Cat. I’m so fucking mad.
Northanger Abbeyis a readable novel, sure, but there is the unshakable sense that McDermid simply isn’t trying. These authors are probably too good to really give a damn about copying old novels whilst introducing a few modern ideas to the mix. I read it. I didn’t completely hate it but I just didn’t care. If the point of this project was to push people back into the safe embrace of Jane Austen’s originals then well done to HarperCollins but if not it has been a thoroughly pointless affair.
Breaker of Chains: When you watch the Game of Thrones you cheer or you rant

Breaker of Chains: When you watch the Game of Thrones you cheer or you rant

So Season 4 of Game of Thrones is in full swing once again and so far it’s been pretty standard. As someone who has already made her way through George RR Martin’s original works, I’ve always through that the show stayed as faithful to the book as it possibly could (considering the author’s potential lack of focus) and, at times, improved upon the original. I have enjoyed the book but I certainly think Martin has a tendency to overcomplicate things. The show has done a great job of fitting the huge books into seasons of 10 episodes and has created some memorable original scenes. The ones that instantly leap to mind are the moments at Harrenhal between Tywin and Arya. Of course, there is every chance that my appreciation of these scenes may have something to do with my utter adoration of Maisie Williams and the fact that I think Charles Dance is a fucking legend. However, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the original scenario where she works for Amory Loch followed by Roose Bolton just wasn’t as attention grabbing.

It was always going to be a difficult task to whittle down the information offered in the books into such short seasons whilst keeping the drama moving. There are plenty of down moments in the novels where nothing much happens (I’m talking the majority of Book 4 and the latter part of Dany’s story) so I guess it would be easy to cut large chunks. However, I am a literary fangirl at heart and am always slightly concerned at major changes to works I have a special place for in my heart. It’s the very reason I refuse to admit that there was ever a Picture of Dorian Gray film. There have been a few niggles here and there throughout the first three seasons (I mean how the hell are they going to play the Siege of Meereen whilst Dany knows exactly who Sir Barristan is?) but it hasn’t been up until season 4 that I really became annoyed about the show messing around with the source.
Firstly, the timeline has been fucked up so much now that certain things just don’t make sense. Mainly Brienne being in King’s Landing before Joffrey dies. She was there for days at least and Sansa was within her grasp. If she really wanted to keep her oath to Catelyn then why didn’t she approach Sansa and get her the fuck away from the Lannister’s? It doesn’t fit with Brienne’s character in the slightest. The only positives that I have seen from her presence have been her encounters with Margaery and the Queen of Thorns. However, I love every second that Diana Rigg is on screen and am eternally saddened that she won’t most probably won’t be on screen for much longer. She fucking nailed that character from the moment she opened her mouth. Despite this brief encounter, Brienne’s presence in King’s Landing before Sansa’s escape just doesn’t make as much sense.
Secondly, and more importantly for me, is the treatment of Jaime. I, like virtually every other reader, came to love Jaime after his experiences with Brienne. He changed which meant when he got back to King’s Landing he found himself disgusted with the people he was reunited with: mainly with Cersei. In the book Jaime returns just after his son has been killed and finds his sister as an emotional wreck by his corpse. Naturally, their increased emotional state and eventual reunion leads to the pair having sex beside their dead firstborn (I mean we’ve all been there, right?). However, in the season 4 episode 3, the writers handled this moment in a significantly different way and I, along with a large proportion of the internet, just aren’t happy about it.
Jaime made his return at the end of season 3 and has had a certain amount of time to see just what kind of person Cersei has become. We already see that he is moving away from his vicious sister and doesn’t exactly approve of who she has become in his absence. By the time Joffrey dies it is justifiable that Jaime no longer loves his sister with the intensity that he used to. However, not wanting to miss the chance to show a bit of sex on screen, the makers still include their encounter in the Sept of Baelor. However, it makes for even more uncomfortable viewing than it did in the novel. Basically, Jaime takes his sister’s moment of absolute grief to rape her which is something that is not only horrible on its own but doesn’t comply with his new character. The man who prevented Locke’s gang from raping Brienne (at that point a near stranger and an enemy) is now happy to force himself on his mournful sister. It doesn’t make any fucking sense.
Of course, following the backlash, episode director Alex Graves was quick to justify his scene by releasing the following statement: “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” Hmmm…. what? It becomes consensual “by the end”. So that’s a handy note to any potential rapists out there. If you just keep trying hard enough your victim may eventually get into it. It’s a ridiculous and appalling thing to say in defence of a scene that clearly depicts rape. Cersei is seen continually shouting the word “no” and is not heard changing her mind before the scene cuts away. If that doesn’t sound like rape then what the fuck does? This so called “power struggle” actually amasses to Jaime using his superior strength to push his sister to the floor, rip her skirts and force himself on her. The struggle is entirely one sided as it is quite clear Jaime is the one with the power here.
Graves offers further “solid” proof that the audience misinterpreted the scene.
The consensual part of it was that she wraps her legs around him, and she’s holding onto the table, clearly not to escape but to get some grounding in what’s going on. And also, the other thing that I think is clear before they hit the ground is she starts to make out with him. The big things to us that were so important, and that hopefully were not missed, is that before he rips her undergarment, she’s way into kissing him back. She’s kissing him aplenty.
This may have been the intention overall but there can be no avoiding the inescapable fact that Cersei continues to cry “no” and “don’t” throughout the scene. Her movement to grab hold of the cloth could be read in a way that suggests rape just as easily, if not more so, than Graves’ explanation. The scene cuts after Cersei cries “don’t” and Jaime definitively states “I don’t care”. Whether Cersei participated in a bit of making out or not, this all seems very rapey to me.
Now this particular rant isn’t about rape being used as entertainment: though I would always query the decision to show a sexual assault being carried out on screen. This is simply about character and needless change. It doesn’t make sense for Jaime’s character in this context to carry out such an attack. He has undoubtedly changed emotionally. Graves states than in that moments Jaime wanted to get his relationship with Cersei back to how it was: “That’s part of what’s behind him, that lie he’s telling himself, that seasons two and three didn’t happen. So it’s a last act of stupid clinging to what’s been home for him, because it will never be the same.” Not only have we already seen how unlikely it was for their relationship to return to normal but the idea that Jaime, in a desperate attempt to recapture his loving relationship, would rape the woman he loves is insane. It is because the act is so against the character’s recent development that fans have reacted so badly to the news. Jaime was becoming, not a wholly good character, but at least a better man than the majority of his family. In one single moment the show’s writers and directors have obliterated the development they spent two seasons working towards.
Which would be less of an issue itself if this was taken from the original text and leading to a specific point. The major fact is, George RR Martin never intended the scene to be a rape (or at least with much less room for interpretation than the TV show left it.)
“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.”
Yes the chapter is written from Jaime’s POV which will always mean he come on top (bad choice of words given the circumstances I guess) but there can be little doubt that Cersei is as into it as her brother. Yes there is a little moment when Cersei, uncomfortable with the setting, says no but the reader is never left with any doubt that she wants Jaime as much as he wants her. I’m not trying to say it’s the healthiest sexual encounter possible (and that’s before you even get to the incest part of it) but at least it’s a consensual one.
One of the major arguments that I have seen in favour (as it were) of the scene is that Martin’s books are full of mentions of rape and sexual assault. Now I won’t be fully defending George RR Martin’s treatment of women in the books any time soon but, I type tentatively, a lot of it is fairly in keeping with the historical setting it is depicting. Again, I’m not an advocate of using rape for entertainment purposes but there can be no denying it is a historically accurate concern. Studying literature means I’ve had to read an awful lot of sexist and offensive works that have made my blood boil in certain ways. I had an entire semester studying novels of sensibility where a woman’s only defence against her rapist was to faint. However, I also easily identify with New Historicists and am intensely aware of contextualising literature. A Song of Ice and Fire deals with a time in which women were often treated sexual and reproductive commodities. It’s hardly a positive point in the history of humanity but there’s nothing we can do about that.

HBO, on the other hand, chose to change the original text and create a scene of sexual assault for, as far as I can tell so far, no reason. Unless they are planning to address this in the future and further fuck up the timeline of the proceeding novels, then this was nothing but an uncomfortable and uncharacteristic display from someone who was fast becoming a 3-dimensional character. It shows a lack of awareness in regards to both characters and audience. I hope HBO find a way to continue Jaime’s path towards the lighter side.
(For those interested the interview I gained Alex Graves’ quotations from can be found here.)
Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

A few years ago it was announced that The Austen Project would task six bestselling contemporary writers with updating one of Jane Austen’s novels. Most probably in an attempt to introduce modern readers to one of England’s most loved authors and to prove that her work is still relevant within today’s society. The news was received with the inevitable dismay of her many fans who think it sacrilegious to mess with the words of their beloved novelist. To the chagrin of my Romanticism professors, I have never been a major fan of Austen: in fact I can only really admit to actually fully enjoying Northanger Abbey, which is simply because the second half of the book is batshit crazy and Gothic. It’s always seemed to me that Austen was writing Bridget Jones’ Diary with added corsets which meant that women of every generation have lapped up the hopelessly romantic journeys of her heroines whilst still feeling as though they are enjoying some sort of feminist doctrine. 

Now I’m not trying to say that she isn’t talented and there is real evidence within her novels that she was clever and very witty. However, no amount of random and bitchy tangents can change the fact that she is the grandmother of chick-lit and I’ll never be able to get excited reading the tales of annoying girls falling in love with utterly objectionable men. Regardless, I was interested in this modernisation plan because when it is done well it can be fantastic. For example, Emma may be my dad’s favourite Austen novel but you can just give me Clueless any day of the week. Plus, no matter what I may have just said, I don’t really mind Sense and Sensibility but that is mainly thanks to Emma Thompson’s lovely adaptation. So, as soon as I could find a cheap enough version, I set about to see whether Trollope had pulled off a Clueless or a She’s the Man.

One thing I can’t criticise is the choice of author. No matter what I think of Joanna Trollope in the grand scheme of things she does understand the world that Austen was concerned with and she certainly knows the novel inside and out. In terms of her rewriting, she stays very close to the original plot: the level-headed and stoic Elinor becomes an architecture student whilst the emotional and dramatic Marianne is a layabout guitarist with asthma. Along with their family, the sisters must leave their beloved home to start a new life with no money and no real idea about romantic entanglements.

Trollope’s rewriting is an unchallenging piece where Austen’s archetypes are placed into a weird Made in Chelsea world of abbreviations, social media and, most shockingly of all for Austen fans, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The plot meanders along fairly easily but it often finds itself coming undone thanks to clumsy exposition, awful romantic-comedy clichés and cringey toff stereotypes. It is easy to get caught up in the tale but there are far too many moments when it is painfully clear that Trollope took the easy way out and the whole thing seems a little uninspired.
Although, the modernisation of the characters, for the most part, works quite well and I particularly enjoyed the stroppy teenage Margaret with her iPod constantly attached to her head. Trollope’s focus on well-rounded characters works in her favour and she is able to give new life to those that Austen kept more in the shadows. In the original both Brandon and Edward are horrendously eclipsed by Willoughby in order to highlight his overwhelming appeal but here they are given new life and more weight. Hell, Trollope even managed to make the girls’ awful mother seem like a real person and that is certainly something worth celebrating.
Then again, Marianne is a bit more of a problem here as you can’t really exchange the curse of sensibility with having asthma. In the original she falls into a depression because she is utterly destroyed by her first love: a full physical and mental breakdown brought on by her excessive sensibility. Her pain is complex and far deeper than the updated M is ever allowed to be. Austen was attempting to discuss a serious side effect of the cult of sensibility that was raging through society but Trollope has, for her own reasons, decided to ignore the psychological ramifications for modern teenagers. Her M remains an annoying hipster-ish girl who is rude and outrageous as a weird act of social revolution. No matter how awful the original Marianne may be you still care: Trollope’s version was a lazy, self-centred young girl who spent time she should have been using to help her family playing Taylor Swift songs. It feels like a bit of a waste.
Nevertheless, there are some other fantastic moments where the modern world comes crashing into Austen’s original. Take the moment when Marianne’s humiliation at the hands of Wills is posted to YouTube so all the world can be a part of her emotional downfall. Then we have the awful Nancy Steele channelling the ultimate Sloane ranger whilst Robert Ferrars, the closeted party planner brother of Edward, is pure Marc-Francis from Made In Chelsea. There are some joyous moments of real-life situations that fit the novel perfectly and Trollope has clearly enjoyed updating the novel. The rewrite of Willoughby’s past turns him from being a mere libertine to something much more sinister and, quite frankly, he needed it.
However, as wonderful as Austenites may find Trollope’s dedication to the original, I think the decision to stick to it so closely is the novel’s ultimate undoing. It was always going to be a tricky task to update a novel in which everything revolves around love and marriage. The world of country houses, inheritances and marriages as a necessity just doesn’t exist in the same way it did in Austen’s time. Women of 2013 have so many options and the idea that three intelligent and capable women would be unable to cope on their own is frankly ludicrous. Elinor aside, the women flounder when it comes to financial independence and, for some undefined reason, are unable to seek work. Trollope’s novel is full of problems arising that simply wouldn’t be as much of an issue today and it takes a great deal of suspension of your disbelief to stick with it. Rather than feeling like a modern novel this feels like a novel of the 1800s that has been badly transferred into a modern setting. It’s strange and jarring as you move deeper into the narrative. In order to make this exercise seem worthwhile Trollope needed to take a few more risks.
At one stage in the novel, and in a failed moment of self-awareness, Mrs Jennings is accused of having the attitude one would normally find in a 19th century novel where a girl’s only ambition is to marry. Her response is: “people pretend things have changed, but have they, really?” Trollope may be trying to convince us that they haven’t but, if Sense & Sensibility has taught us anything, it’s that they most certainly have.
The Cuckoo’s Cover-Up: or How J K Rowling fooled the literary world into enjoying her new book

The Cuckoo’s Cover-Up: or How J K Rowling fooled the literary world into enjoying her new book

This weekend saw massive books news. Literally nobody was crying out for me to offer my opinion on the matter but that’s not stopped me so far. As we all know by now, on Saturday it was revealed that a book with positive reviews but mediocre sales was actually written by one of Britain’s most bankable authors: JK Rowling. As cover-ups go it’s not exactly the most exciting but the revelation that Robert Galbraith is actually just JK’s second pseudonym has taken the literary world by storm. The BBC New website has helpfully quoted the following from a Waterstone’s spokesman which pretty much sums up the general feeling: “this is the best act of literary deception since Stephen King was outed as Richard Bachman back in the 1980s”. JK insists that she wishes that the truth could have come out a little later but her publisher must be pretty happy that people found out just as sales weren’t going so great. What a happy, happy coincidence.

Well I’m certainly no expert but doesn’t this change how we should read the book? A great deal of the praise surrounding The Cuckoo’s Calling was based around how confident and self-assured it was for a debut novel. But wait. This isn’t a debut novel. This is a confident and self-assured novel by an author who has had a great deal of time to find her voice and get used to the writing process.
Now I’m not saying the book is worse considering Rowling wrote it (although I’m still not her biggest fan) but surely you can’t view it in the same way you have have done had Galbraith been a real person? For example, imagine a film made by a first-time director won the Oscar for Best Director and we found out it was actually just Stephen Spielberg. Would the direction be any less accomplished? No. Would it mean that we had to judge it on a different level? Most certainly. How can it be possible that an established writer (who let’s not forget made over £230 million from the Harry Potter series) can be analysed in the same way as a new writer? It might not seem fair but there is a difference between the two. A difference that needs to be recognised. Whilst the novel may still be well-written (having not read it I won’t comment further on this), is it still as wonderfully put together for a writer with so much experience?
Take a look at the first and the last Harry Potterbooks. There is a massive difference between JK’s writing style in the two and it wouldn’t be fair to compare the two in the same light. Her first few books are immature, have a slightly nervy feel to them and are pretty slow-paced. The final novel, whilst longer, is pretty much always moving forwards with the plot (if you ignore the epilogue which I always do) and have a real sense of self-awareness. There is no denying the fact that she became a much better writer as she was writing the series.
So how is it fair that a seasoned writer gets to have another chance at being a clueless novice? It wouldn’t be fair for any writer to expect to get a clean slate in this way because they still have a major head-start over the real beginners. She has spoken about liking the opportunity to get feedback that isn’t geared towards herself as a writer. I will admit that maybe she has a point about the fact that people make assumptions on her work based on her name alone. Obviously there is a big difference between the original reviews of The Cuckoo’s Callingand the mixed reaction to The Casual Vacancy(her Harry Potterfollow-up). So I understand her desire to get away from it. However, I don’t see how it’s a fair solution to create a completely new person with a full biography to create completely different assumptions. At least one reviewer I’ve seen praised the ex-army officer’s ability to describe women’s clothes. When you consider it’s actually a woman writing that doesn’t seem all that spectacular, does it? Why could she not create a character who was similar enough to herself so it wasn’t that much of a stretch? Context has a great deal of influence over writing (as a self-confessed new historicist I have to stress this idea) and who the author is should be considered when analysing a text.
As much as JK might not like the attention she receives with every new publication (violins at the ready chaps. She’s a rich and famous author who just wants to be loved) but it only seems fair that an authors previous work should be taken into account in some part when reviewing it. It’s not necessarily a perfect system but it’s all about their individual voice. It’s a matter of who they are as a writer and where each books sits in their personal canon. Imagine, if you can, that William Shakespeare is actually alive and writing amazing episodes of Breaking Bador something. Whilst they might be critically acclaimed in their own right they wouldn’t exactly hold up against Hamletwould they. Or maybe they would… I still haven’t seen it.
It might not seem like it but this isn’t even my major gripe about the revelation. It’s the timing of the thing. She may want to get anonymity with her writing but, as we’ve seen, there is no real market for the books of ex-military man Robert Galbraith. Prior to the news on Saturday sales of the novel were anything but spectacular. Now, thanks to a timely and anonymous tweet (I wonder who that was from) the sales have gone up to an astonishing 507,000% according to the BBC News website. Is this how Rowling’s future releases are going to go? Whilst she’s writing the novel she simultaneously creates a biography for her new pseudonym, waits for the positive reviews to come in for a talented newcomer and waits for a few months before revealing the truth so she can make money.
Isn’t this all incredibly insulting to other writers? Think of all the unsigned authors who don’t get published every year or struggle to get books out. We know that at least one Publishing company rejected it (Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Books admitted to it) so if Galbraith was a real writer would it have been published? Rowling has proved that her name sells so it’s not the greatest gamble for her publishing company to agree to make her novel under a fake name knowing that at any time they can boost sales with a simple information leak. Why bother with all this ridiculous game playing? Can’t we just get down to the proper business of writing good books for people to enjoy? But maybe I’m just old fashioned this way.
Harry Potter and the Disastrous Epilogue

Harry Potter and the Disastrous Epilogue

This week is very much about JK Rowling. Her follow-up book to the ridiculously successful Harry Potter series (and first attempt at writing for a completely adult audience), The Casual Vacancy, was released on Thursday. As such, I have read an array of articles about her in the past few days with many of them causing me at least a modicum of distress. As you would expect, the vast majority are overflowing with references to her popular series of Harry Potter books but reveal very little about her latest work. The author’s highly anticipated follow-up was shrouded in mystery and very little information was revealed about it prior to publication. It therefore provided the perfect chance to rake over old ground and talk about the series that have (in my mind mistakenly) lead to Rowling being named one of Britain’s top authors.

The first article that struck a nerve was an interview with the author in the Guardian on Saturday in which she discusses the possible reaction from the literary world. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/22/jk-rowling-book-casual-vacancy) She also revealed that she believes her decision to publish her new book under her current nom de plume, rather than another fake name, was a ‘brave decision’. (“But in some ways I think it’s braver to do it like this.”) Brave? Really? An author who has made millions from a series of seven books is saying her decision to write under her well established name is brave? Who does she think she is kidding here? I admit, there is some pressure on her to release another book that people enjoy as much as they did her previous work. Had that mattered to her so much it would have made more sense to remove this book from her past work completely and release it under a different name. The decision comes down to the fact that the book is bound to sell more with the name JK Rowling attached to it. If proof were needed, the book has smashed pre-sales records both in shops and online. Whilst I am not suggesting that this decision was wholly down to Rowling, (no publisher in their right mind would allow her to change her name now) her feigned vulnerability only comes across as a desperate attempt to convince people to be easier on her. A very rich writer, who has become one the most popular British writers of the past few years, acting like a victim is unnecessary and incredibly frustrating. Regardless of how good or bad this novel turns out to be, it is bound to sell an insane number of copies. Her decision was in no way brave; it was merely prudent.

The second article (and the main reason behind this particular rant) came from the Huffington Post after they reopened the debate about Rowling someday penning a sequel/prequel/whatever to Harry Potter.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/26/new-harry-potter-book-_n_1916466.html) Once again Rowling is attempting to come across as fairly aloof on the matter and says she would only consider a return if she had “a great idea”. I think it’s safe to say that she will one day return to this series as the only reason I can see for the terribly written, over sentimental and clichéd epilogue is to set up loads of questions that need to be answered. Despite having read the seventh book multiple times I have only ever read the epilogue once all the way through (well once again for the purpose of this post but that is just how committed I am to my obscure and unseen little blog). The epilogue completely ruins the tone of the final book. I understand that Rowling may have felt that younger readers would prefer the fairytale happy ending that the last few pages provide for Harry but I think the final line of the final chapter offered a perfect finish. I can’t help but think that maybe a better writer would have had the self-control and artistic vision to see this. Instead, Rowling gets carried away and writes a disgustingly twee, pointless and utterly hilarious ending. I have yet to meet someone who has read the series and thinks that there was any need for it to be included. To make this more worthwhile than a simple bitch about a successful writer I will look at this piece in greater detail to rationalise my hatred.

First a reminder of how the series could and should have ended. Our heroic trio, having survived the battle, get rid of the Elder Wand and prepare for their future:

                         ‘That wand’s more trouble than it’s worth,’ said Harry. ‘And quite honestly,’ 
                          he turned away from the painted portraits, thinking now only of the four-poster 
                          bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindor tower, and wondering whether Kreacher 
                          might bring him a sandwich there, ‘I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.’              

This ending, whilst being fairly sedate and unassuming, would have been an amazing ending to the series. The juxtaposition of Harry’s simple desires and dreams of a quiet life and the battle that has just raged in Hogwarts offers a great setting for saying farewell. The audience is given the chance to calm down after all of the chaos and emotional stress of the battle. After watching so many of the characters we have known for years risk their lives and lose their loved ones, the idea of a warm bed and a life without trouble is something both Harry and the readers can look forward to. We are offered a finite ending; evil has been defeated and life can carry on as it was meant to. Harry has finally been released from all of the duty and threats that have followed him for 17 years. The reader can leave him feeling satisfied that he is finally happy and peaceful.

The epilogue picks up nineteen years later at King’s Cross. We follow Harry and Ginny, now married, as they accompany their two sons, James and Albus, and their daughter, Lily, to platform nine and three-quarters. It is basically a way to explain that our favourite characters all get their happy ending. My main concern with the last few pages of the novel is that it is just a bit too neat. How likely is it that all of these characters marry each other and have children of the same ages? It’s all a bit too childish to believe that after all of those years and after the events of the war that everything would work out so perfectly for everyone. Rowling threw as many characters into this final scene as she possibly could. There is simply too much going on. What is supposed to give an insight into how everything works out for the main characters actually just rushes through a list of names and introduces us to some children with cringe-worthy names.

It is these names that people have the most problem with in terms of criticism of the epilogue and I have to agree. I understand that there was already a tradition of naming children after relatives within wizarding families in the book (the Weasley’s being a prime exampe) but this is taken to ridiculous extremes in these pages. Albus Severus, James and Lily Potter mark 2? Yuck. I could rant about how cheesey this is for pages but I will restrain myself. Rowling shows her naivety as a writer by allowing these clichés and sentimentality to take over her writing. I understand that there were a lot of people to honour for their work in fighting Voldermort but I think Rowling lets her own feelings for the characters take precedent over the needs of the novel. On top of that, I’ve never been a big fan of Harry’s sudden turn around on Severus. It’s ridiculous that a boy who has spent seven years hating his teacher and suspecting him of trying to kill him can suddenly get away with naming his child after him. It was always obvious that Severus was going to be a good guy in the end and it goes to highlight Harry’s stupidity that he didn’t sense this glaringly obvious ‘twist’. Harry’s change of opinion towards Severus after the latter’s death has always had the same sort of insincerity as a death-bed repentance. Faced with the realisation that the man he constantly warned people against and never trusted (despite the fact that he had the backing of the wizarding world’s most respected man and Voldermort’s main enemy) was actually working to protect and help him, Harry had to make a 180 turn and praise the man, whilst never actually portraying any real sorrow for his actions. At the same time, Severus died still disliking the boy. The pair would never have been pals had Severus survived and Harry’s decision to name his child after him is utterly transparent and kind of crazy. (I have recently found a very good visual representation of my annoyance which I think you should check out http://flying-foxx.deviantart.com/art/Harry-Potter-The-7-Stages-of-Denial-296726602?q=gallery%3Aflying-foxx%2F12945286&qo=10)Surely there are enough Weasley’s for them to name a child after? I mean Ginny and her family must have been pissed off that their grandchildren were only named after their other family. A family that they, nor their father, actually really knew.

The addition of these marriages and children only goes onto open the way for a future after the battle. The end of the last chapter was a strict ending. Evil was gone, Harry was happy, let’s go to bed. The future wasn’t even an issue. It didn’t matter because whatever happened Harry would be happy. The epilogue makes the future and the nineteen year gap a major issue. Rather than answering any questions about the future of the main characters it only raises them. For example, we see Draco and his family but, considering our last view of him was as an outcast, his apparent freedom in the wizarding world and acknowledgement of Harry only brings up issues of how he was able to redeem himself. After the death of Voldermort how were the Malfoys able to ingratiate themselves again? What happened between Harry and Draco to bring about this purported truce? It would have to be something fairly dramatic considering Draco almost killed Harry’s mentor, helped get Voldermort into Hogwarts and was, basically, a massive dick for seven years.

This isn’t the ending that the series deserved. There is too much going on and too much to consider. I understand Rowling’s desire to give Harry the happy and loving family that he had craved his whole life but there is no need to squash it into a three page epilogue. In fact, I would argue that this is exactly what Harry had at the end of the last chapter. He, Ron and Hermione were a family. Look back to their time at Grimmauld Place; we have the three of them living together with Kreacher as a family unit. Unconventional, yes, but a family unit all the same. Then there is the fact that Harry has pretty much been adopted into the Weasley family. Molly gave him a present every Christmas, gave him her brother’s watch for his seventeenth Birthday and allowed him to stay with their family for multiple holidays. Hell he even went to the wedding of Bill Weasley who he barely knew. Family was something that Harry was never lacking throughout the seven books. The fact that Rowling wanted to create this romantic ending for him only goes to undervalue all the times that she tried to convince her readers that he found the place he belonged at Hogwarts. What did that matter if the only real family is a two parent, three children kind of set up? If she had insisted on looking further into Harry’s future, it would perhaps have been better to dedicate an entire chapter to Harry’s family (and by extension Ron, Hermione and other members of the Weasley clan). At least then she could have allowed this to happen without having to throw a vast amount of information at the audience in one go.

The epilogue is not necessary in terms of the novel as a whole and is instead written as a shameless introduction to future novels. We have a scene that places all of our heroes together with their new lives without telling us anything about how they got there. There were so many issues to clean up after the final battle and the Ministry of Magic was in tatters. What happened to the death eaters and other supporters of Voldermort? What of the Muggle world? Did any student at Hogwarts ever sit a fucking exam? These are things that we now need to know. Had she ended the book at the final chapter the fans would still have hoped for more books but at the same time would have had a satisfying enough ending. The epilogue is nothing but a cringe inducing example of the shameless commercialism that overtook the whole Harry Potter series. Rowling has said herself that she would have preferred more time to work on certain novels but had to rush to get them published. It is the need to publish and make money off a loyal audience that led to one of the worst three pages of English fiction of the past few years. I’ve never been a huge fan of Rowling’s writing style but I will say there was definite improvement as the books when on. She gained confidence and came to understand herself as a writer. All of that work is undone in a matter of pages and a few nauseating names.

And in regards to the final line, what is the point? The fact that his scar no longer hurts is no more an indicator that Voldermort is dead than a cow lying down signifies bad weather. The moment that the part of Harry that was a horcrux was destroyed then his link with Voldermort was also destroyed. The pair could feel each other because Harry was himself a part of Voldermort. He took on his characteristics, his emotions and his dreams. No horcrux means no pain. I just pray that when the inevitable sequel is released Voldermort doesn’t come back to life to seek revenge on the trio’s children. That’s a bit to B movie for a series of books that meant so much to my childhood.