Review: The Silence

A live televised caving expedition in Moldova takes a disastrous turn when a team of potholers and scientists opens up a large and hereto sealed underground ecosystem, releasing from it a swarm of vicious bat-like creatures that promptly feast on their liberators. The now-unmanned cameras keep on rolling, beaming the harrowing footage to a few horror-struck Discovery Channel viewers across the world.

Two such witnesses to the carnage are Ally and her father, Huw, whose stories we then follow as the world rapidly goes to hell. Ally is an easy-going fourteen year old girl getting on with life with her mum and brother in a quiet town in south-east Wales, not letting a thing like her lack of hearing hold her back. Huw, on the other hand, is holed up in a bed and breakfast on the Cornish coast, working lonely weekdays away from home. Both can scarcely believe what they have seen, and yet both are rocked by the footage.

At first the creatures escaping from the cave aren’t deemed much of a threat. As Ally scours the internet and social media for context, she finds many commentators dismissing the footage in one way or another. Surely it’s a movie trailer, right? Right? Well, sucks to be them, then. Shouldn’t have gone down there in the first place. Why should I care? I mean, Moldova is pretty far away, isn’t it?

Then the news stories bring home the terrible truth as towns, cities and countries begin to fall. The creatures are astonishingly quick, immediately attracted to the slightest noise around them, their appetites voracious. They have no eyes, their flesh is a sickly yellow, and their teeth – oh, man, so many sharp pointy teeth. Worse still, in this new ecosystem teeming with unsuspecting walking meat, and with no predators to speak of, the creatures swarm like locusts and breed like wildfire.

Both Ally and Huw know deep down that the situation is serious, perhaps even the beginning of the end. But what can they do? Should the whole family up sticks and run? Even if they did, where would they run to? And could they outrun the coming swarm?

Maybe. Maybe not. All they know is that in order to survive they will need to be very, very quiet.

A couple of years ago I tore through Tim Lebbon’s fairly lengthy end-of-the-world novel Coldbrook and thought it was a riot. Picking up a copy of The Silence, however, I was struck by how similar the premise seemed. It was as if someone had replaced the flesh-hungry zombies of Coldbrook with flesh-hungry du Maurier-esque birds, then reset the apocalypse simulation and hit the play button. Even so, I had enjoyed Coldbrook more than enough to buy The Silence without a second thought, and, y’know what? I’m glad I set my cynicism to one side, because The Silence is excellent.

There is a lot to like here. The pacing of the book is spot-on. The vesps – little, hungry buggers that they are – overwhelm Europe at a frightening pace, and yet, at the same time, Lebbon manages to keep the horror away from Blighty’s shores for as long as possible, ratcheting up the tension brilliantly as Ally and her family struggle to cope in a land fast losing itself to panic. The writing is smooth as silk and, like Coldbrook before it, I tore through The Silence in only a few sittings, probably leaving scorch marks on the pages.

Not only is the pace expertly judged, but so are the reader’s expectations as the story develops. As bizarre as it sounds, I swear Lebbon is telepathically linked to the reader. There were a number of times I found a nagging thought developing along the lines of “surely if everything was going to hell, then such-and-such would have happened/run out/gone off by now” only for that very thing to happen within a couple of chapters.

There’s also a nice bit of symbolism threaded through The Silence, if you go in for that kind of thing – perhaps nothing too subtle if even I’d spotted it, but pleasing all the same. (I’ll keep shtum on that one, in case you’re tempted to have a read.)

But the biggest triumph of The Silence is Ally. She is one of the best-written characters I’ve read for a while, matched only perhaps in my recent reads by Jamie Morton in Stephen King’s Revival and the hapless hikers of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual. It’s quite cunning, really, in that it’s Ally’s normalness that defines her. Any prejudices taken into this book melt away within a few chapters. While we’re never left in any doubt that Ally cannot hear, it seldom seems to matter. She’s just getting on with it, signing with friends and family who know how, and lip-reading those who do not, no biggie, no dramas.

There were niggles and downsides to The Silence, but these were fairly minor. For example, Ally’s chapters within the book noticeably outshone those that focused on Huw. I don’t quite know why, but I never really connected with him. Perhaps it was his tendency to gush with love at the slightest sight, sound or whiff of whichever family member was nearest him. Then again, I am a bitter and cold-hearted sod, so bear that in mind.

I also felt there were small inconsistencies in what it would take to attract a nearby vesp. The slightest whisper could set one upon you, but in other scenes you could gather up a bag of odds and sods with the things peaceably perched almost on your shoulder. Nothing truly jarring, and perhaps easily overlooked.

One plus point, and a rare one for a Titan Books first edition, is that I found no typos in the book! Huzzah! It’s such a shame, then, to find they’ve gotten Ally’s name wrong on the cover. Hey ho, I guess you can’t have everything. (By the way, the copy-proofing offer still stands, guys.)

So, in summary, should you give The Silence a whirl? Absolutely. Read it as if you were watching a movie, and be sure to check your fingertips for burns as those pages fly by. It’s not quite a 5/5 from me, but, equally, it seems harsh giving it only 4/5. Heartily recommended.

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Review – The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: This review contains spoilers for “The Name of the Wind”.

“The Wise Man’s Fear” is the follow-up to 2007’s “The Name of the Wind”, with the third and final part of the trilogy allegedly due in 2015.

In the first book we were introduced to a man called Kvothe. His is a name known across the Four Corners of Civilisation thanks in part to his exploits over the years, and thanks also to the exaggerated and sometimes untrue legends that have been told and mistold about him (some of which Kvothe wilfully started himself). But now he’s in hiding, living life as an innkeeper with his understudy, a demon fella called Bast. When a passing scribe called the Chronicler unearths Kvothe’s true identity, he deems it high time his life story was committed to paper in his own words.

By the end of the first book, covering the first fifteen or so years of Kvothe’s life, he had developed indomitable skills in the magical art of sympathy, generally been brilliant at anything he put his mind to, was banned from the University’s library, ultimately expelled from the University (and quickly readmitted – a bit of a cheat if you’ve read the blurb to the first book), met Denna (the supposed love of his life), lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna (you get the idea), and, in a flash of emotion, managed to call the name of the wind – one of the main reasons he had come to the University in the first place.

In the real world, however, something is not quite right. Kvothe seems no longer able to muster up the slightest bit of magic, and, as “The Wise Man’s Fear” progresses, it’s clear he is no longer the skilled fighter of legend either. Is he keeping himself in check, or is he all talk and no trousers? Meanwhile his understudy, Bast, has revealed himself to be a bit of a bad ‘un, threatening Chronicler (somewhat unnecessarily) to bring the old Kvothe from out himself.

Okay, so that was the first book in a very small nutshell. For the first 300 pages of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, see above as it’s essentially more of the same. (No bad thing.) After that we then hit a huge 700 page tangent which basically covers Kvothe’s Gap Yah. It’s perhaps better to be armed with this knowledge before heading into this 1000 page novel, because otherwise, once things shoot off in a different direction, you might start asking yourself whether Rothfuss is ever going to get back to the story.

Maybe this was a deliberate ploy. A life story in which you know what to expect speaks of a dull life indeed. What is more definite is that the trilogy forms as much a character study of Kvothe as it does his life story. We are introduced to the man in the rather pompous “You may have heard of me” speech (see the blurb at the top of my earlier review), and then the remainder of the trilogy is spent substantiating each of those claims while at the same time fleshing out his character.

So in this book we see Kvothe turn from a boy into a man, into a killer of men, and he also does his best Anjin-san impression (a wink to any Shogun fans out there). Oh, and he finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, yada-yada-yada. Meanwhile, during the interludes in his story, we see more evidence that Kvothe may be something of an unreliable narrator, especially as he is given to making up some of his own legends.

So is “The Wise Man’s Fear” any good? Yes it is, but it’s not quite as good as “The Name of the Wind”.

Again the writing is first-rate, although a writerly tic seems to have crept in that I’m sure didn’t appear in the first book (i.e. the whole “grinned a malicious grin”, “screamed an ear-piercing scream”, “sneezed a snotty sneeze” kind of thing), but this is a minor quibble.

The attention to detail and the characterisation is, for the most part, excellent – the exception being Denna, whose repeated appearances of little consequence in the story begin to test one’s patience.

But there are some larger faults to overcome. Once Kvothe’s Gap Yah begins, the flow of the novel becomes choppy, tangential and uneven in a few places, and, while some of this is acknowledged intra-story, I’m not sure they are all deliberate plays on the erratic and elastic nature of storytelling. For example, having ingratiated himself with a very rich and powerful man, Kvothe is then suddenly tasked with leading a band of mercenaries to hunt down a bunch of bandits. Why would the man choose a kid to do that ahead of, oh, I don’t know, virtually anybody under his command?

The story then sags when Kvothe essentially drops everything to get his end away with Felurian, a powerful faerie famed for bonking men to death. The subsequent chunk of story, in which Kvothe struggles to learn the language and the fighting skills of the Adem, also grinds on by. While I can understand why those sections were there, I swear I could hear the story groan under the sheer weight of Too Many Names. If it wasn’t a shopping list of Kama-Sutra-esque acts of nookie, such as the fluttering hand, the harrowed hare, or the chuckling chaffinch (okay, maybe not that last one) it was a litany of fighting styles lifted from some beat-em up’s list of special moves. Some fight scenes therefore became comically abstruse and rather dry, and, as a result, very nearly broke the spell weaved over me by the first book.

Once free of this saggy midsection the story picks up strongly and for me to blather any more about it would spoil the fun.

In short, it’s only a 4/5 from me, but, despite it’s faults, “The Wise Man’s Fear” is still a fair distance ahead of the pack and, for most of those 1000 pages, it is a solid, enjoyable read. I can’t wait to tuck into the final book.

Review – The Name of the Wind

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’

For a while I wondered what all the fuss was about Patrick Rothfuss. I’d picked up a copy of “The Name of the Wind”, read the above blurb and thought, “Meh. It’s a fantasy novel about a braggart.” I then picked up a copy of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, read the blurb and thought, “Again, meh. More of the same.” The covers: “Meh. A shadowy cloaked figure. Well, shit, I’ve never seen that on a fantasy novel before.”

And yet there was something. Since its publication seven years ago the paperback of “The Name of the Wind” has undergone over twenty printings in the UK alone. The thing has been a solid seller. I also saw just what he meant to those who had read his work. (Boneman, if you’re reading this, you won me over!) At a recent convention Rothfuss was one of the most laid-back and approachable people there. So I picked up the novels again. I began to wonder how a 700 page novel could span only a single day (“The Name of the Wind” is subtitled “The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One”). Heck, the follow-up 1000-pager spans the whole of day two…

Long story short: dammit, I became interested, and so it wasn’t long before I bought them both.

If the above blurb left you somewhat in the dark (as it did me), let me say what you’re looking at in this novel (and its sequels) is a man’s life story told in his own unhurried words. The first day’s storytelling forms the bulk of “The Name of the Wind”, the second “The Wise Man’s Fear” and so on. As Kvothe tells his story, so we see the making of the man and the legends that have grown around him. Once you know that, the above meh-worthy blurb starts to make sense.

So is it any good? Good lord, yes, and the key to its success, for me, is the word “unhurried”. It’s a crying shame when you read a decent-sounding story and see it slavishly adhere to some bullshit action-action-action axiom, as if the author is thinking to themselves: “If I don’t blow some shit up or kill someone off soon my publisher’s marketing department says the average reading demographic will switch off and… and… and…”

Thankfully there’s no such nonsense here. Thanks to the narrative device of Kvothe telling his life story, combined with Rothfuss’ determination not to rush things, “The Name of the Wind” has a real kick-off-your-shoes-and-gather-round-the-fire storytelling style, and once you find yourself lost in its world, you won’t want to leave.

In this first novel we find Kvothe living under an assumed name, seemingly content to live his days as an innkeeper while secretly tutoring his student, a demon called Bast. To many he was Kvothe the bloodless. He was Kvothe the Kingkiller. His story is told and mistold across the land, and now, for some reason, he is in hiding.

When a passing scribe unearths Kvothe’s true identity he convinces the man to tell his story, and so we begin.

“The Name of the Wind” covers Kvothe’s first fifteen years. As the son of troupers, the child Kvothe is an astonishingly quick learner, helped in no small part to his exceptional memory. (Hence the lengthy, vivid account of his life story, I guess!) When the troupe takes in an arcanist, Kvothe’s mind is lit up by the old man’s knowledge and the workings of a type of magic called sympathy. By the time the old man leaves the troupe, Kvothe’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, and so he sets his heart on studying at the University and soaking up its vast library of books.

But a great tragedy befalls the troupe at the hands of a legendary monster called the Chandrian and Kvothe is consequently forced to eke out a living begging and stealing in a large town called Tarbean. Broken, alone, and filled with a desire for revenge, Kvothe the boy is forced to rebuild himself anew.

As this is someone’s life story, “The Name of the Wind” is told in a fairly linear fashion. To further describe the story would therefore spoil the fun. Needless to say you won’t be disappointed if you decide to amble through its 700 pages.

And amble you should. Rothfuss takes his time when it comes to writing, and so it would be a crying shame to blast through the story in one sitting. No, this is a story in which to enjoy a good, long wallow. Soak up the brilliantly-drawn characters and the bustling ambience of each scene. Admire the incredible imagination at work, the attention to detail and the wonderful prose. (The first page is so beautifully written it quite rightly bookends each novel.) In short, read it in the same spirit it was written and enjoy.

This is easily a 5/5 from me, and sets a very high bar for any future fantasy I read. Heartily recommended.

Review – The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes is the first book in a trilogy from the popular and prolific penmonkey Chuck Wendig, with the second book, The Hellsblood Bride, due at the start of 2015.

In it we are introduced to Mikey “Mookie” Pearl, a soldier for The Organisation – a powerful crime syndicate that keeps New York’s assorted gangs in check, and which also happens to be the only thing standing between New York and the hellish underworld beneath. Mookie is a big man, which comes in handy when smashing goblin heads together. How big? Well, if you were to gaffer-tape Arnie, Stallone, Van Damme and Lundgren together into a single hulking, sinewy mass of muscle, then you’d be in the right ballpark. So, yeah, Mookie’s a big fella, and he’s about to hit upon a series of big problems.

His teenage daughter, Nora, forever pissed off with her Dad, is making waves in the criminal underworld in the guise of her alter ego, Persephone, and she is determined to either bring Mookie to heel or to bring him down. Things take a turn for the worse when The Boss of The Organisation reveals he is dying, a revelation that, if made public, would invite a power play that would destabilise the uneasy treaty between New York’s assorted gangs. And then there are the growing attacks from assorted horrible creatures from below, from goblins only too happy to lay eggs in your warm bits to wraith-like phantoms that stab thoughts and memories from their victims.

Then things go all to hell when The Boss’s heir apparent meets a particularly gruesome end, seemingly at the hands of Persephone…

For those unfamiliar with Chuck Wendig and his writing, let me try to describe it. Imagine a barbecue upon which there sizzle a tasty array of quarter-pounders, sausages, a couple of corn cobs and one of those big mushrooms. Then imagine someone comes along and slaps a whopping forty-eight ounce steak on the grill, dwarfing everything else on it, and marinaded in the most insanely hot chilli sauce. Once cooked they then drench it with even hotter chilli sauce and serve it up with a side order of another forty-eight ounce steak.

That, folks, is Chuck Wendig. We’re talking big. We’re talking strong flavours. And while The Blue Blazes is about as subtle as a pyroclastic flow through a primary school, it is nonetheless ridiculously entertaining. It’s like reading a long-lost Paul Verhoeven film created somewhere between Robocop and Total Recall. Bold is the word here, from the characterisation to the dialog and set pieces, and such unashamed comic book styling forms a large part of the book’s charm.

But there’s more. The jokes hit home when they need to. The action is riotous and blood-thirsty. The horror is icky and uncomfortable when it needs to be. Wendig’s New York and the sprawling underworld beneath it are well-realised and strangely believable.

The structure of the book is spot-on too, with each short chapter prefaced with an excerpt from a pioneer’s journal to help the reader keep up and to also flesh out the immediate story ahead. It all helps make this a mighty smooth read and the pages fly by so quickly you risk friction burns on your fingertips.

And yet for me it is not a five star book. Why? Well, there are a handful of reasons.

First and foremost there are some fairly big plot holes to pass, perhaps requiring Burnsy’s All-American quad bike and a helluva run-up. It may be that I missed a page reading so fast, but I think these niggles hold true. (A cynic may suggest the speed of the book helps distract the reader from seeing the holes – I wouldn’t be quite so snide.)

First: Nora, as Persephone, giving the criminal fraternity what-for – I can get behind that. What I struggle to believe, however, is that nobody in New York’s underworld knows Nora is Mookie’s daughter. Mookie is a high-ranking operative in The Organisation. I don’t care how careful he has been, it would be highly improbable for him to hide his family from his “other” family.

Second: the story seems to break its own rules. The Blue Blazes is a drug-like mineral rubbed onto the temples to enhance a user’s strength, stamina and perception, like some kind of computer game power-up. When “Blazing” a human’s third eye is also opened to view the world anew and to see some people for what they really are: children of the underworld, for example, or maybe one of the maligned half-and-halfs. Think John Nada putting on the shades in “They Live”. But this additional property of Blazing, not to mention its addictive qualities, seems to be largely forgotten around halfway through the story. Humans just get to see those gruesome buggers whether they’re Blazing or not, and the Blue no longer seems to have any adverse after-effects.

Finally, and this isn’t really a plot hole, there’s Nora herself. Frankly someone should have thrown her down a well and filled it in with concrete afterwards. While her existence and actions were integral to the plot, her “annoying teen with Daddy issues” act was a bold flavour too far, and the conflicting insights into her mind felt at times like she was panel-beaten to fit into the story.

While I found these niggles irksome, they didn’t really derail me from the story. If you are willing to let these kind of gremlins whizz on by at a hundred miles per hour and to go along for the ride I would heartily recommend The Blue Blazes. It’s enormous fun and I look forward to book two.

4/5