Thursday, June 16, 2016

Holiday Reading: On Stranger Tides and The Lions of al-Rassan

I feel that I let myself down slightly this year on holiday, as I only managed to get through two books in the week we were away. In my defense we did fill the time with a lot of activity, including (but not limited to) Laser Tag, Quad Biking, a lot of boardgaming and ice cream. All good stuff. But in between all of that I did manage to get in two books, one of which I've been meaning to read for years, and don't have any real excuse for avoiding, and the other I'd not got around thanks to the terrible pirate movie of the same name. But I've read them now, and really enjoyed both, so lets talk a bit about them. 

The Lions of al-Rassan
I first read some Guy Gavriel Kay many years ago, when trying to get "into" Fantasy fiction, and his Tigana was one of the best books I read that year. As a follow up I was recommended The Lions of al-Rassan, which draws heavily on the Reconquista of Spain in the 15th century, but it just never made it to the top of the list until I finally re-bought it for my Kindle and took it with me on holiday. Like Tigana it's a slightly melancholy, lyrical story that undermines the idea of "right" and "wrong" and puts eminantly likable people in opposition to each other, so that you know right up front that any outcome will make you sad. And it does. 

The setup is close enough to real history that it did cause me some dissonance as my brain kept trying to map places and events onto my (admitidly sketchy) knowledge of the period. To be clear, it's definately not trying to recreate that real history, but the central conflict between a (not-Muslim) culture in retreat and a (not-Christian) culture on the rise, with (not-Jewish) characters caught in the middle as well some of the geo-politics of each faction, wear their inspiration on their sleeves. It's to Kay's great credit that the story itself is very much it's own thing. 

I don't want to cover the plot too much as I'd recommend reading and discovering this for yourself, but the book is set out as a tragedy very early on and certainly delivers. It's a book with some staggering moments of darkess that it carefully pulls away from; more interested in the consequences than indulging in the actual moments themselves. He's also far more interested in the arcs of his main characters than the grand politics of it all - sometimes to a fault, as near the end of the book we skip forward a little to fast over some relatively large events. But in the end we care about it's main personalities, even though we know there can be no happy ending for all of them.

On Stranger Tides
I'm late to the Tim Powers party but I continue to churn through his back catalogue. This time, it's piratey adventure with On Stranger Tides, which the Pirates of the Carribean movies owe more too than simply the last plot outline they messed up. This book is all about high adventure in the Age of Sail, with the added bonus of Blackbeard and a whole lot of Voodoo magic along the way, mixing history and the esoteric in the way that only Tim Powers does. 

On Stranger Tides is a little scrappy around the edges, and doens't always do the best for it's characters - it's sole female character being relegated to victim and hostage for most of the book, for instance - but it cracks along with a lot of wit and charm. It's relentlessly entertaining, and I was left wonder how the hell the movie that shares it's name went so wrong. I mean, the story is right there on the page, working fine!.