Sunday, 26 March 2017

Book Review - The Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones

Better than Disneyland
Capitalism, capitalism, capitalism. If our society were to discover a gateway to an alternate universe, a universe which is very much like a typical world from high fantasy, then what would we do? Share information and technology? Embrace this miracle as a chance to learn from the new world?

In The Dark Lord of Derkholm we’ve commodified it, selling tours around the fantastical world that allow people to have their own quest. People can rampage through a world, fighting battles, defeating vampires and demons before slaying the dark lord, and saving the world.

It takes the world all year to recover properly, and then they have to do it all again.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Juggling Responsibilities.
As the new dark lord, it’s wizard Derk’s job to organize the tours. Naturally, organizing a whole world gives him rather a lot to do. Wynne Jones gives herself an awful lot to do too: through the marriage of mundane logistics and fantastical surroundings, she looks to convey familial drama and intrigue. Throughout the story there’s lots of hanging plot threads, and almost always more than one thing going on at the same time.

Not only is there the lingering threat of arch-capitalist Mr Cheney, who functions as the primary antagonist of the story, there are also other dangers in the world; demons, dragons. Even a potential saboteur amongst their own ranks. There are twists and turns and agents acting behind the scenes here.

Despite all the elements that she is playing with, Wynne Jones keeps things generally very well balanced. At times there’s a little bit too much and too little at the same time – there’s no real obvious end goal being worked towards, and coupled with the slightly meandering structure of the story, this can create the sense that the story gets stuck in a rut.

Lots to do
The story is focused around Derk and his rather large family, and their relationships with each other form the emotional core of the story. Even in this Wynne Jones convincingly marries the mundane and the fantastical – three of the family members are griffins.

Despite this, Wynne Jones creates a very solid picture of a family creaking at the seams under pressure. The characters are all very Wynne Jones – there’s a certain gentleness to them, even whilst the events are less so.

Just for context
Amongst all these balancing acts, Wynne Jones’ biggest triumph is the world that she creates. In introducing all these ideas that are more modern, she successfully creates a sense of a genuine fantastical world too. She parses out elements of the world slowly, keeping back new things to be introduced later. There’s also a lingering sense of a bigger world just off the page too, that the characters are just too busy to take us to.

That she manages to maintain this sense of the fantastical amongst the mundane, and does so throughout the novel is its main strength. It’s conclusion is unfortunately rushed, and the plot drive can sag at times. A worthy read, nonetheless.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book Review - Eye in the Sky by Big PKD

To say that Dick was ahead of his time, is to say that winter in Arctic is a tad nippy.

What would modern media, modern sci-fi, look like without his stories of paranoia and existential terror? Maybe the same - the ambiguities of modernity that fuelled his neurosis (well, that and drugs) are more present and relevant than they were when he was around. Increasingly we interact with worlds that don't exist, and the one that does is being increasingly bent around creatures like Twitter and Facebook. Nonetheless, break down most big sci-fi films or TV shows nowadays, and you'll find them filled with Dick's DNA, like zeitgeist induced bastard children.

Which is to say, it's really odd that he's such a bad writer.

Bad may be an oversimplification. No one could argue that his ideas are anything less than big and interesting. Paranoia seeps from the pages with such vigour that it's clearly coming from somewhere very genuine. Few can create such a cloying and personal sense of threat and distrust of your very senses.

Eye in the Sky is a funny book, as it doesn't even have that - certainly not to the same extent. It follows a small group of characters as they are involved in accident involving lasers, and find themselves in a world which is subtly (then not so subtly) different.

Eye in the Sky is a funny book not just because it hasn't really got Dick's strengths on full display, but because it is also stronger in a more conventional sense. The prose is better - much better in fact, whilst still being recogniseable Dick. It flows better, sets a better pace. The side characters, too, are given unique personalities and space to breath, and beyond the plot itself is intertwined with who they are as people.

The dialogue is still bad, but you can't have everything.

What makes this book so curious is the fact that despite being stronger in many ways than a lot of his other stories, it is probably one of the weaker of his that I have read. The idea is great, the characters are better than your usual Dick fare, but the complete package is somehow less. Perhaps it is because Dick is best when he's just doing what he is good at.

The ending is a problem - it does not, in any real meaningful way, relate to the story. It has an uncharacteristically happy tone, and any ambiguity that may have been implied was lost. Eye in the Sky was listed by Dick himself as one of his most important books - for myself, I'd recommend giving this one a miss.