Sunday, 22 April 2012

Fever Crumb

I've written before about Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines quartet. I made the minor mistake of thinking that the Fever Crumb prequels weren't also a quartet, and so I'm frustrated and beached, three books into a four book sequence with the fourth one still hung up somewhere between Reeve's mind and the bookshop. It's hard to know whether what I've read will wrap up in as satisfying a way as the original four books, or whether the vague feeling of disappointment is a herald of bigger disappointment in a year or so.

It's not that the books are bad, nor that I didn't have fun reading them. Reeve is still juggling whimsy with grimness and mostly getting away with it. And there are big solid chunks of imagination in there; the venue for the second book, Mayda, is nicely sketched in. Still, there's always a problem in prequels; the author's imagination is hemmed in by the fact that the future is already determined. On a bad day, the action's just running on rails to a destination the reader already knows too well; on a good day, a set-up that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the pre-ordained future is cleverly revealed to be all about it. Those good days are very rare, no matter how good an author is, and when the clever reveal doesn't work, it feels clunky and contrived. One of the best characters in Mortal Engines is Shrike; and his origin story forms part of the narrative for Fever Crumb. Should be brilliant, somehow ain't. Shrike doesn't need to be explained; Reeve should have learned from watching the Phantom Menace how it's not a good plan to show us where the fascinating robots come from.

These are quibbles, me grumbling about a good writer not quite living up to my expectations. The steely hardheadedness is still there, both in the willingness to kill off characters who would have lived through most other books and in the way in which characters get worse. Fever Crumb's saga doesn't hold a couple as interesting as Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw, but it's fascinating to watch the development of Charley Shallow in the story so far; he keeps getting more and more unpleasant and selfish; I can't recall the last time I've read a children's book which goes to so much trouble to build a villain up from an initially relatable character. Knowing Reeve, I'm not betting on redemption for Charley Shallow in the fourth book; neither am I betting on his getting his comeuppance.

I had put off heading into the books for a while, fearing that I might be disappointed, and so it came to pass. How much of it was the inevitable problem of writing a prequel and how much of it was me setting my bar too high, I really don't know. Next year we will, touch wood, see how the threads get knotted together.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Company of the Dead: David Kowalski

It turns out that this book took 15 years to finish, which is only slightly longer than I felt it was taking me to read it.

It really seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm officially not in the mood for the Titanic (and due notice be served here, it's just like any other boat in the whole world, so it gets a 'the" in front of its name, James Cameron be damned), but this was a book about time travel and alternate history which just happened to have the Titanic stuck in around the edges, so I was willing to give it a pass. When I found it in the Belfast Waterstones and realized that it was 750 pages long, I had some faint misgivings. Courage, I thought. Blackout and All Clear were crazy long and that all worked out fine. How bad can it be?

The Company of the Dead isn't entirely bad, but it falls a long way short of great. The idea in it is a good one; well-intentioned time traveller tries to stop the Titanic from sinking, only to create a world much different to, and much worse than, the one we know. So far, so the Sound of Thunder (there may be earlier takes on the idea that small changes have big downstream effects, but the Sound of Thunder is the first one I read, and even now, almost forty years later, my recollection of it packs a wallop). Kowalski had an interesting idea about what would happen next; the small changes wrought in trying to stop the sinking keep America out of World War I, which stops World War II from happening and leads to technological and social stagnation persisting well into this century. The detail of some of the trends didn't strike me as entirely plausible, but the notion of things just stultifying for a while was very credible. Most of the great empires went stagnant once they reached their expansion limits; and then they collapsed, of course, as empires will.

So Kowalski had a nice idea to begin with, and then an interesting vision of an alternate world. What went wrong? The whole middle of the book, really. Even though I'm heartily tired of the Titanic, the book would have been much better if it had stayed on the boat the whole time. What happens instead is that the book begins and ends on the boat, and then there's this huge messy middle that doesn't really work. My best guess is that there's around 500 pages in the middle of the book which could be painlessly removed without any real loss to the project. They're just a distraction. They don't really sketch in the world much, they don't - to me - do anything to elucidate character, and they don't advance the plot. It's almost like Kowalski himself didn't know where to go with his ideas and kept writing until he figured out what he wanted to do. Then, instead of being ruthless and going back over the work with a redwood-sized blue pencil, he just kept all the dead ends and side quests, winding up with a doorstop when a wedge would have got the same job done more elegantly.

It's not always a bad thing to digress all over the shop, but to get away with it requires a talent which Kowalski doesn't demonstrate here. I found myself re-reading chunks of the prose because I'd lost track of which character was the focus of the short chapter I was reading. The characters don't come to life, and although Kowalski often captures that sense of desperation which a doomed endeavor carries, sheer desperation is ultimately tiring to read about, especially when it's sustained over so many pages.

Perhaps the most important near miss in the book is with the role of time travel; Kowalski cleverly makes it just as much a mystery to his characters as it is to us, but then fails to concentrate on it, instead making the centre of the book a vast confusing conspiracy that completely ignores the mystery which ought to be the centerpiece. Parts of the mess are ultimately tied back into the whole by time travel, but by the time the knots have been tied, so much other stuff has happened that nothing carries the dramatic and emotional weight that it ought to. It's almost as though some Harry Turtledove sized pure alternate history novel has been dropped into the middle of a perfectly good time travel book, to the detriment of both. There's a perfectly good book in there about the problems of Kowalski's alternate America, but it's getting in the way of an equally perfectly good Jack Finney-esque meditation on the price you pay whether you change the past or leave things be.