Monday, 26 December 2011

Novel Review - Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Lots of nice things have been said about Pratchett's writing: his wit and humour, the wackiness, the power of the Discworld as a satirical tool and the general reflectiveness of his work. One piece of praise that I never really hear, however, yet seems to me as true as any of the others is this:

Hot damn can that man write an action set-piece.

Not that you should expect an action packed book, however: this is perhaps the most meandering Pratchett book I have come across. The plot is unusually woolly; there is both an antagonist and a destination, but neither are as present or as emphasised as you would expect. Whilst his scene construction, sleight of hands left right and centre, are as nuanced and brilliant as ever, this is a very unusual problem to come across in Pratchett's writing. Some of the threads that are introduced are left hanging, once again rather unusually. Nonetheless, it's a coherent plot that is paced well and tied strongly to the characters and themes.

Pratchett is a writer who knows how to write as well as anyone, and his technical skill is fully exposed here. He builds tension, creates a memorable villain very quickly, misdirects and plays an incredibly subtle hand with symbolism. As well as being layered, this novel displays Pratchett's abilities in an area I tend to underestimate him. Stylistically, Snuff is memorable, quotable and sharp - his descriptive powers are equal to many, and the way he laces thematic echoes into his work is really the work of a storyteller still at the height of his prowess. The use of limited perspective is about as good as you'll find anywhere.

Another strength that is ably on display in Snuff is Pratchett's ability to introduce conflicting ideologies into the story without ever really taking a side from the point of narrative. Characters will often contradict each other, and the book will never tell you which to believe - you will have to make up your own mind. This is true of the themes too, with the old class issue being giving a good seeing to. Much of what happens here is Pratchett as usual - if you have read the Watch books, you know what you are in for.

Nonetheless, Snuff is a great read. Sharp, funny prose; intelligent writing; engaging and nuanced characters: there's a lot on offer here, and even if this is a slightly more flawed affair than your average Pratchett book, it's still a remarkably good book even before you consider the author's health. If you are a Discworld fan, read it - if you're new, go read Guards! Guards! and work your way to this book.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Merlin, Episode 10 - Herald of a New Age

Howard Overman, you're a good writer. I know you are. Misfits may struggle to find tonally consistency, but it's sharp and original and fun with flashes genuinely brilliant characterisation. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (all one episode of it) was one of the best things I have seen on television in a while, on a par with the Dr Who Christmas Special even.

Yet when I went back and watched Howard Overman's first episode of series 4 of Merlin - The Wicked Day - I found something that was too fast paced and crammed with awkward dialogue. Less than stellar acting did not help. So approaching this, Overman's second episode, I felt that my expectations were that this would be an improvement. Certainly, the trailer promised a creepy concept that looked like a welcome break from the norm.

Five minutes in, and I've given up. The banter between Arthur's harem of knights is stilted and awkward enough that I can only imagine the writer was contriving to bad writing. Like The Wicked Day, Herald of a New Age seems to be going too fast, delivering perfunctory and economical dialogue without an ounce of weight to it. Anything that we need to know is telegraphed to us, and the performances do not help.

The director does know how to direct horror, it seems, and build tension. This story certainly seems like it has   a touch of Ring inspiration somewhere in there, as the choice of a pale, corpse-like child who is constantly dripping evokes deja vu rather too potently to be coincidence. Either way, the choice is a good one, as the child's presence is genuinely eerie, and some really good atmosphere is built up.

It seems to me, however, that the better the story in Merlin, the worse the episode. Merlin does silly campy fun, and when it tries to tells really good stories, it's shortcomings get in the way. These characters, written as they are and acted as they are, can hold up lightly entertaining nonsense, but when something of more depth or more interesting plotting is attempted it serves only to draw attention to insufficiencies of the series.

The attempts to deal with the emotional impact of last episode's events are rather badly misjudged. They seem to just be thrown out in a cursory manner, used as devices to justify certain plot elements rather than actual deal with the emotional ramifications of recent events. When the episode then goes on to deal with and resolve totally separate character issues, it makes the whole thing feel very muddled.

This was a fun episode at times, and genuinely creepy, but ultimately a failure. Merlin is a place of mindless fun, not of sophistication, and so I come to the baffling conclusion that this story would have been better were it worse.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Choice Words - Haruki Murakami's After Dark

"Eyes mark the shape of the city.

Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature - or more likely a single collective entity created by intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the end of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm. Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moans, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding."

And that's after it has been through the translator. It's a testament to both Murakami and the translator Jay Rubin that this retains such descriptive power.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Okay, so I need to restore some sort of life to this place...

But in lieu of saying anything substantive (that's coming), here's some music: