Friday, March 13, 2009

Imagination cubed

I've read two books recently by the author Stephen Hunt: "The Court of the Air" and "The Kingdom Beyond the Waves". And I shall now review them ... or, at least, try to.

From the fly-leaf notes I can only admire Stephen Hunt as he is one of the creators of Crows Nest. And because of his credentials I almost hate to say how much I hate these books.

I hate them as much as I like them.

Let me try to explain: He has created a universe full of amazing invention (one other review I read suggested that there was too much invention) - except the closer you look there is very little actually original. Almost everything is derivative. But still, lots of invention - that goes in the plus column.

The plots do crack along at a pace (both contain at least two quite distinct sets of characters following their own stories which come together at the end) but in both cases I got two-thirds of the way through, the plots look like they're about to climax, and suddenly something goes wrong and the plot plods on for another 100 pages before hitting the real climax.

Those extra 100 pages are, quite frankly, boring. I just kept thinking "get on with it"!

Add to that dialogue and description that is totally on-the-nose and largely unnecessary. If I had been allowed at it, as an editor, I would have chopped out a very large chunk leaving something just as inventive but much terser.

Let's talk about invention: the intention is to give these books a Victorian steampunk feel, but the implication is they take place in the distant future (I could be wrong because at other times it seems to be a parallel Earth instead).

But you have the land of Jackals (Britain), Quartershift (France) and other national stereotypical analogs. There are steam-driven computers (transaction machines) and so forth. These things are not particularly new (Harry Harrison's "Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!" covered this type of ground) but, of course, no reason why they should be new ideas but it's how they are used and referenced that quite simply drove me up the wall.

What's wrong, in my opinion, is the author constantly winking at the reader. Both books are packed from beginning to end with "cookies", references to existing real world items and contemporary references. I have never known a book that spent so much time breaking the 4th wall.

The absolute worst was the "Suits You" character - yes indeed, he had a character that spoke like the shop assistant's in the Fast Show's Suits You sketches. Okay, not a major character, but even so.

Every character is a stereotype. The plot is everything. Plus the writing, in the second book, becomes inconsistent: the technology the characters encounter becomes much more modern and the main characters begin to talk and behave differently. I would suggest that this is because the stories are plot not character driven.

I love pulp fiction, I mean really: I love Doc Smith's Lensman and Skylark books. These are regarded by many as "bad" though if you take the time, and remember when they were written, they are not so bad. Pure escapism.

But these works by Stephen Hunt ... I just don't really know what to say. I wouldn't recommend them. It's just my opinion, of course. They received various plaudits from the likes of SFX magazine. Although it's interesting to note that the "this is great" quotes on the back of the second book are actually about the first book.

Only read if you have a long boring train journey.

What's on the turntable? "Newgrange" by Clannad from "PastPresent"

No comments: