24 July 2013

Blood of Elves

Author: Andrzej Sapkowski 
Translator: Danusia Stok 
Series: The Witcher Saga, book 1
Year published: 1994 in Polish, 2008 in English
Pages: 314
Time It Took To Read: A day
I am really pissed off at Gollancz, who have the publishing rights to this series. I hate waiting, and after a three year delay, the second book of the series was published a few weeks ago. The next isn't due til next year. This is apparently because of legal difficulties. For gawd's sake, everyone ELSE in Europe has had translations. Get on it! Gollancz are also responsible for the fact that I have to wait A YEAR for the last True Blood book to be published in paperback. Who wants that many bloody books in hardback? They don't make you wait a year for the kindle edition!
Anyway, this book begins the Witcher Saga properly. The short story collections (The Last Wish, and The Sword of Destiny, which hasn't been officially translated yet) were written first, and this book refers to several incidents in these books. But it's not essential to have read the short stories first. 
The story revolves around Geralt, the witcher and his ward, Ciri. Ciri begins the story being trained as a witcher as well, but her magical ability needs a wizard's touch. This is recognised first by Triss Merigold, and later Ciri's care and training is given to Yennefer.  Meanwhile, everyone and his dog is after Ciri, for reasons that aren't completely clear in this book. 
If you've played the game, it's interesting to see Triss in a position of such weakness, and to see Yennefer at all as she's AWOL by the time the game starts. Dandilion, the bard, makes a welcome appearance as well. The descriptions of battle are among the best I've read, but this series has a gentler side as well. I really want to read the rest of the series. Would anyone like to teach me Polish? It'll probably be quicker than waiting for Gollancz to pull their finger out.

Book count: 34/50

18 July 2013

The Magician's Apprentice

Author: Trudi Canavan
Year published: 2009
Pages: 752
Time It Took To Read: Two days
This book is a prequel to the Black Magician and Traitor Spy trilogies, also by Trudi Canavan, and I bought it because it looked like my sort of thing. I wanted to see if the trilogies were going to be worth my while.
It took me a couple of days to read, in the baking sun. The story starts in Kyralia, with Tessia, who wants to join the Healer's Guild with her father, but is effectively barred from joining as she's a woman. Meanwhile, Lord Dakon, the local leader, is entertaining a Sakachan lord who he neither likes nor trusts. When Tessia, Lord Dakon and the Sakachan meet, Tessia discovers she is a 'natural' magician. This is a world where magicians can train anyone who can afford it to be a magician, but are obligated by law to train 'naturals' up. Magicians rule the whole country, and also defend it from foreign magicians who are less scrupulous.
Underpinning all this is the idea that Magicians keep apprentices so they can draw power from them, and become stronger themselves. This 'higher magic' can be taken from anyone, but is considered part of the magician-apprentice bond. However, Sakachans keep countless slaves for the same purpose.
So far so interesting. The story is good, though it is written with the expectation that you've read the trilogies, even though this book is set hundreds of years prior to them. It is obvious from the way the book ends that Tessia, as well as a Sakachan woman whose story runs concurrently, becomes somehow important in the future.  I didn't feel overly invested in the characters. The Sakachan subplot, regarding a woman called Stara, comes from nowhere and seems to go nowhere, except to highlight how vile the Sakachan culture is to women in general.
There are strong feminist themes throughout.Despite it being the basis of much of the story, I felt like the magic was underdescribed. Apparently, this author writes to include a young adult audience, and I think this story would have been much better if written with more adult themes - there was no sex, and death was muted. Women are either virgins, or married to impotent/homosexual men, although promiscuity is implied. Tessia's parents are murdered and then rarely mentioned again.
I don't plan to buy anymore of Trudi Canavan's books based on this, though I do plan to get them from the library and see if they're better - certainly, reviews on Amazon suggest this is not her best work. Ultimately, I was hoping for more of a saga, especially after the brilliance of the last book I read!

Book count: 33/50

14 July 2013

The Last Wish

Author: Andrzej Sapkowski 
Translator: Danusia Stok
Year published: 1993 in Polish, 2007 in English
Pages: 280
Time It Took To Read: A day
My boyfriend got The Witcher 2 for Christmas on Xbox. I borrowed it off him, after he said the combat system was a bit difficult, and completed it in a fairly sleepless week. It was my sort of game - swordy, some magic, traditional RPG elements and good characters. I bought this, the first collection of short stories which the games are based on, when I found out that they existed! Originally written in Polish, the books are slowly (painfully slowly) being translated into English. Only three of eight have been done so far. This is vexing. Get on it, publishers.
Geralt is a witcher and he kills monsters for money. Witchers are mutants, removed from their parents at birth and treated with hormones and poisons to make them superhuman. They use magic, but aren't exactly sorcerers. They have great alchemical skill, and a mastery of lore. Although they are mercenary, they have a strict code of honour. They are mistrusted by most of the regular population, and seen as a necessary evil by much of the elite.They are supposed to have their feelings destroyed in the process of becoming witchers, but this has not wholly happened to Geralt.

The Last Wish is a collection of loosely interlinked short stories about Geralt's adventures. There is a great deal of humour, life and warmth in the stories, as well as gore, horrendous monsters and fantastical elements. It has helped that I've played the game, and had an understanding of the subset of magic that's used in the book, but I found it a really good read regardless. If you enjoy playing RPGs in the Baldur's Gate/Elder Scrolls genre, or, indeed, have played The Witcher, I can't recommend it highly enough. It makes me wish I could read Polish so I could get them all now!

Book count: 32/50

11 July 2013

Former People

Author: Douglas Smith
Year published: 2012
Pages: 374
Time It Took To Read: A couple of weeks - not a beach book!

I don't know much about the Russian revolution. It was missed out of my GCSE history, because apparently the feudal system of 500 years ago is more important than something that happened barely a hundred years ago.
Like many others, my knowledge was mainly grouped around some names (Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky), a vague communist ideology, and the murder of the Tsar and his family in 1918. I've read quite a lot about the murder of Tsar Nicholas II, and it was a horrific murder. Discount, if you will, the politics and the status of the family. A husband and wife, their four daughters and their invalid son, along with some servants, were taken into the cellar of the house they'd been held at. They were told they were going to be shot (they went down believing they were to be moved), and the soldiers opened fire. Unfortunately, the family had sewn their jewels into the clothes, which sounds decadent, until you realise that this was pretty much the only liquid assets they had left to use if they managed to get out of Russia. These jewels acted as bulletproof vests. The family were stabbed with bayonets once the bullets ran out. It took ten minutes. Imagine watching your family gunned down and stabbed for ten long minutes. Once they were finally dead, they were burned, buried, moved around a bit and eventually found in 1981 and 2007, and reburied.
So, that's what happened to the monarch. But no monarchy exists without an aristocracy to support it and to marry into. This book deals with what happened to the noble class.
Russia in the early 1900s was plagued by poor government and civil unrest. A revolution was seen as inevitable and welcomed by many; rich and poor alike.The type of socialism employed by Lenin reversed the status quo. Rich estates were given to peasants, rich people were sent to work in the fields. Their possessions were either stolen, destroyed or simply removed from them by the government. Many nobles fled into Europe, where they had families or second homes. Indeed, the Tsar was trying to arrange to get out to Great Britain around the time he was arrested. The reluctance of George V in allowing his cousin to seek refuge meant they had to stay. However, many other nobles chose to stay, not wanting to abandon the motherland. They often spent long terms in prisons and work camps, and several were shot for treason. But as this book demonstrates, life went on. People married, they had children, they lived as best they could in their newly reduced circumstances.
Then Stalin came along. The nobility (along with other undesirables) were made official Outcasts. This forbade them to work, to own property/land, to seek healthcare or use legal services. They were imprisoned in gulags for long periods of time, with little or no warning, or reason. Sometimes, they were released for a few years, only to be rounded up and executed. Being sent to the gulag often meant death anyway, from starvation, dysentery, and other infections.

This book concentrates on the Golitsyn and Sheremetev dynasties. There is a lot of interbreeding, and repeated names, which makes it hard to follow - there's a family tree and list of characters, but I felt like having a notebook alongside, writing things as I went along would have been more helpful. I didn't feel particularly involved with anyone's plight and everytime I became absorbed, the narrative switched to someone else. By the time the action switched back, I'd forgotten who was who.
This book expects you to have more understanding of the Russian revolution than I do. That said, it is exceptionally well put together and researched, and heartbreaking. I just wish the author had concentrated on a couple of strong central characters and made the rest of the story revolve around them. The constant jumping around does not make for a cohesive read. He has not struck quite the right note between dry historical narrative and biography. On to something less arduous!

Book count: 31/50

10 July 2013

The Duties of Servants

Author: Jan Barnes, original unknown
Year published: Originally in the 1870s, reprint from 1993
Pages: 128
Time It Took To Read: Not long

I read on the toilet and have a selection of books installed there, for when my usual fare is just not bog-worthy. You know you do too, stop judging me. Anyway, I'm currently wading through a fascinating, but deeply depressing book on the Russian revolution, and that's not good toilet reading. THIS however, was PERFECT.
It was originally published in the late 1870s, as a guide for employers of servants. It has a guide to wages, advice on hiring (don't hire married men, they might steal your brandy), and an outline of duties for each servant. It covers the very largest households, and the legion of servants expected, down to the family with just a parlourmaid. It has some GEMS of information, like how to talk about food with your cook without annoying her, and how to cope with SLATTERNS. It's not a very substantial book, but if you like Downton (I don't), or that period of history (I do), or social history (yup), you'll get something out of it.

Book count:30/50

I've also been re-reading some Bill Bryson books - Neither Here Nor There and Notes From A Small Island. That man is a GENIUS.