Sunday, 17 July 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2016

The Wheel of Osheim, by Mark Lawrence


           In the concluding volume of Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy trilogy, Jalan Kendeth Prince of the Red March, is in Hel – dragged there by his huge Norse companion Snori Ver Snagason who is searching for his slain family with the intention of bringing them back to life in the Real World.  Entry to the horror that is the Underworld has been made possible by Loki the Liar’s Key, a key that can open any door(Book Two, see review below), and once again Jalan is roped in to participate in life-threatening adventures he wants no part of – all he wants is to go home to Vermillion and re-engage in his usual hobbies of gambling, drinking and bedding compliant women (and there are so many of them;  he is a handsome devil!):  the bleak and wasted lands of Hel with its wandering and tragic populations of Dead Souls is making his hair stand on end, to say nothing of the various nightmarish monsters that try to kill the only two living creatures, he and Snori, in that terrifying landscape:  it’s not fair – he’s fed up, and wants out!   
            But not before Jalan’s survival instinct is tested to the utmost, and he discovers to his shock that he actually has a spine after all for his shivers to run up:  to his amazement he finds that he is the victor in more than one skirmish with the loathsome dead of Hel, and even saves Snori – not that his friend ever doubted him;  Snori has always had a touching faith in Jalan’s previously hidden fighting abilities (Jalan always believed that his talents as a runner should be more encouraged) but it is with a heavy (cowardly) heart that Jalan takes a single opportunity to return to the world above, leaving his only friend to battle on in his search for his dead family.
            Jalan’s joy at returning to the Red March is short-lived:  he finds his city under siege and his grandmother the Red Queen absent, warring against a neighboring state;  his brothers who always considered him (rightly) to be The Runt are in need of quick and efficient planning and leadership – and who (amazingly) steps into the breach?  Jalan’s trip to Hel has prepared him like a baptism of fire for the worst that war can throw at them.  Which it does.
            Prophecies of doom centring about the Wheel of Osheim, last  great symbol of the genius of the Builders, humans from a thousand years before who destroyed most of the earth with the explosion of a Thousand Suns, are now coming close to fruition:  the Wheel, the existence of which is known to a very few, is spinning faster and faster.  When it goes out of control the world will crack and break.  It is too awful to contemplate, especially as the only thing that will stop it is Loki’s Key, fitted into a special slot marked ‘Manual Override’.  And who is the reluctant custodian of Loki’s Key?  Yep.  Cowardy Custard Jalan.
            I have to admit that the intricate technicalities of the Wheel and its function (was this the Hadron Collider?) left me scratching my head and breathing through my mouth, but as a series, The Broken Empire is unsurpassed.  Mr Lawrence’s construct of a world post Nuclear Holocaust is masterly and his characters are unforgettable.  My only criticism regarding ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ is that Jalan’s ghastly sojourn in Hel is unevenly juxtaposed with his adventures back in the real world;  the story loses pace and flow here – but does resume when Snori and his axe return to save the day.  Great stuff.  FIVE STARS.      

The Liar’s Key, by Mark Lawrence.

Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March returns to entertain and delight readers yet again with his utter lack of scruples, eye for the main chance and a remarkable propensity for attracting enemies by the shipload.  His reprehensible behaviour has not improved since Book One ‘The Prince of Fools’;  he still lies, cheats and tries to flee at the first sign of danger to himself (too bad about anyone else!) and the only reason he leaves the comforts of the snowbound inn he and Snori ver Snagason have been wintering in is the usual pursuit by various cuckolded husbands and outraged women who considered themselves his only true love.  Yes, it is time to leave before his enviable looks are spoiled and he has been made to eat certain essential parts of his anatomy, and Snori, an honourable man who still (despite so much proof to the contrary) considers Jalan his friend, is the perfect bodyguard.
            But Snori is on a seemingly hopeless quest, and will not be dissuaded:  he has possession of Loki’s Key – Loki, the trickster God of Norse mythology, Loki the Liar, Loki the Cheat who fashioned a key that can open any door, including that of the Underworld.  Snori means to find that door, open it, and search for his dead family.  He will bring them back, or die in the attempt, for his life is meaningless without them. 
            Needless to say Jalan (right up there with Loki at lying and cheating) is horrified at Snori’s reckless pursuit of a sticky end, but will travel with him (the Norseman might be mad but he’s superb insurance against the dangers on the road) as far as Vermillion.  Even though Jalan is only a minor princeling it will be wonderful to return home, where he can embellish shamelessly the stories of his exploits – and where he will at last be warm.  He thinks.
            Jalan is indeed warm, but the welcome from his family is not;   yet again he is forced to flee from creditors who are tiresomely demanding their money  and he finds to his horror that he misses his travelling companions – Christ on a bike – he must be ill!
            True to form, our cowardly hero undergoes much privation (usually his own fault), battles disturbing visions from mages, necromancers et al as they try to find out what he knows about Loki’s Key and its whereabouts – ‘A key?  What key?  I am a prince of Red March.  What use have I for keys!’  Yeah, right.  Those sorcerers aren’t fooled for a second.  Jalan is the conduit:  when he reunites with Snori, the Key will be theirs.
            It is not easy to create sequels that are successively better with each volume but Mr Lawrence is one great storyteller who seems to manage this feat effortlessly;  he leaves the reader always wanting more, hanging out impatiently for the next episode – which will see Snori and craven companion Jalan exactly where he does not want to be:  in Hel, searching for Snori’s beloved family.  My only complaint about this book is that I shall have to wait at least another year for Mr Lawrence to enlighten me. I’ll have forgotten all the plot details by then!  FIVE STARS.

The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton

Ruby is 10 years old and profoundly deaf.  She communicates with her parents by lip-reading and sign language, and life is difficult for her at school where she faces daily taunts about her disability – because that is what kids do, don’t they?  She had one good friend, a boy, who was driven away from her by his classmates’ harassment, but she  has decided that she doesn’t care (even though she does), because her parents are the best in the whole world;  Dad is a wildlife cameraman currently working in Alaska, and Mum is an astrophysicist, and they both know so many cool things about the wonderful planet we inhabit, and the stars that bathe us all in their crystalline light every night – whether we notice them or not, and Ruby fears that people are noticing (and caring) about the natural world less and less.
Well, she doesn’t care (even though she does) because she and mum have just arrived at Anchorage, Alaska from Britain, expecting Dad to be at the airport to greet them.  They were meant to come for Christmas in a fortnight’s time, but mum and dad had a fight on the phone and mum decided to bring the trip forward, much to Ruby’s delight;  she hasn’t seen dad for three months, and though they email and Dad sends wonderful pictures of the wildlife he photographs via his satellite connection, (they have even started a blog) to see him again in person would be totally cool.
But he is not at the airport to meet them.  Then it is revealed by a State Trooper who has been to Anaktue, the little village where dad was based, that there has been a terrible accident;  fuel appeared to be stored too near to a heat source, there was a terrible conflagration and all twenty-four inhabitants died.  Ruby’s dad is declared one of the fatalities, and she and her mother are in shock.  What to do next, especially as mum (Yasmin) refuses to believe that her husband Matt has died.  The authorities have it all wrong!  She would KNOW if he were gone:  their connection is so absolute that she would know.  She will find him – she will find someone to take them to the little village;  tanker drivers go back and forth to the Prudhoe Bay Oil wells regularly.  She will pay someone to take them on their search.          
And because Yasmin is a resourceful woman, she and Ruby are soon on their way – on a nightmare trip of hundreds of miles north in a savage Alaskan winter, in a big rig which she eventually has to drive herself, for the tanker driver becomes ill and has to be airlifted back to Anchorage, not knowing that his passengers are determined to carry on without him.    
Ms Lupton’s account of her protagonists’ nightmare adventures succeeds on so many levels:  as a testament to the natural beauty of our planet, the nurturing world in which we are so privileged to live – and the efforts that those consumed by greed will employ to destroy it in order to claim its wealth;  as an action-packed thriller that pits Yasmin and Ruby against the unforgiving environment as well as the Bad Guys, and as a love story involving a tight-knit family of three who will literally travel to the ends of the earth to be together, all told in beautiful, lucid prose that is a joy to read.  SIX STARS!

     


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