A Year in Books: November

The Giver – Lois Lowry
The Running Man – Stephen King
Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner
Knight, The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual – Michael Prestwich

The Giver – Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry’s remarkable 1993 novel for young adults, The Giver takes one of the most enduring sf tropes – the flawed utopia – and gives it a powerful spin.

Set in an unnamed nation at an indeterminate point in the future where notions of individuality have been more or less eradicated and society is dedicated to the notion of ‘sameness’, The Giver follows the maturation of a young man, Jonas, who is selected to become The Receiver of Memory, or, in other words, the emotional repository of a society where emotion runs in a shallow stream. As part of his training, he becomes apprenticed to a man he comes to know as The Giver and discovers that his safe, bland world is much darker than he could imagine.

There is, of course, a long and noble utopian/ dystopian history running through science fiction – from Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 and encompassing such novels as L.P Harley’s Facial Justice (which The Giver resembles in some aspects) – and particularly of late there is a rich thread of dystopianism running through sf for younger readers (The Hunger Games and The 100, for instance) but where much of modern dystopian fiction presents itself as the backdrop for adventure, The Giver uses its platform to examine what it really means to be human. If we allow ourselves to lose those ‘inconvenient’ emotions, such as empathy, what might that do to our basic humanity.

What is remarkable about The Giver is the way in which Lowry steadfastly refuses to lay out the topography of her world in simple terms, only giving the reader tiny glimpses of how things are. Most effectively, this happens in those passages where Jonas begins to see colour and we suddenly realise that the world he (and for the length of the novel, we) inhabits is a grey and featureless one where everything from the landscape and sky to the citizens themselves conform to a pre-determined ideal of uniformity.

To say much more might spoil the novel for new readers, so suffice to say that Jonas’ new found (or newly given) memories of the past (including such things as snow) leads him to a revelation which is totally at odds with society and to a heartbreaking – and ambiguous – climax that lingers long in the mind.

The Running Man – Stephen King/ Richard Bachman

A very early Stephen King novel, originally published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, The Running Man is a dystopian science fiction novel in which the main character, Ben Richards, agrees to participate in America’s most popular game show, The Running Man, hoping to win enough money to lift his family out of the grinding poverty they (and the vast majority of the population) have found themselves mired in.

The premise of the game is simple – Richards is to go on the run and will be tracked by trained hunters who will do their best to kill him, and if he survives for a month will earn a grand prize of one billion dollars (on top of the $100 dollars per hour he will earn for staying alive and uncaptured).

The Running Man is a short, brutal novel, one in which violence – both personal and perpetrated by the state – permeates every page and the prospect of betrayal and death is never far away.

The plot is a fairly simple one (reminiscent of Robert Sheckley’s The Seventh Victim) but King/ Bachman handles it with consummate skill, breathing life into what might otherwise be stiff characters and sketching a dismal future where television has become a dominant societal force and brutal game shows fill most of the air time.

The novel was, of course, filmed as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in 1987, but took only the bare bones of the story, tacked on some dopey one-liners (my favourite being ‘Sub Zero? Now plain Zero’), Gladiator style bad guys and an upbeat ending. King’s original is much darker, his shadowy hunters all the more sinister for their anonymity and Richards himself a more driven, often desperate quarry.

A fast and absorbing read that shows Stephen King at his pulpy best.

Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

Poetic, romantic, violent, intriguing and beguiling, Swordspoint is simply one of the best fantasy novels that I have read in years and after finishing it I could only lament that it had taken me so very long to get round to it.

Set in the Riverside district of an otherwise unnamed city Swordspoint follows the life of Richard St Vier, a professional swordsman (and the best in the city) his lover Alec, Lord Michael Godwin, the Duchess Tremontain and various other lords, nobles and the lowlifes of Riverside itself.

This, however, is no standard fantasy. There are no wizards, dragons or rough-hewn barbarians here and, in fact, Swordspoint could be thought of as an historical novel set in a country that never was, mixing aspects of Regency Romance, Ruritanian adventure with a Gothic take on Jane Austen.

But what makes Swordspoint so remarkable is its emphasis first, second and always upon its characters. This is not to say that Ellen Kushner’s worldbuilding is lax – far from it, and in many ways the anonymous city is as much a character in Swordspoint as any of the human beings – but rather that she chooses not to bog the story down with imaginary history but rather allows the reader to see the world through the eyes of her viewpoint characters (and in this respect there is a nod towards Mervyn Peake and his extraordinary Gormenghast novels) and as such we see the world from a number of different angles, from the very highest to the very lowest.

As an example of character driven fantasy Swordspoint is beyond doubt a masterclass, as a sword-driven adventure it is peerless and as a romance it has moments of genuine heartbreak.

In other words, I liked it a lot.

Knight, The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual – Michael Prestwich

A companion volume to the unofficial Legionary manual which I read (and mentioned) last month. Knight by Michael Prestwich is a light-hearted but informative look at medieval warriors. Filled with anecdotes, snippets of history and examining the lives of some notable knights (John Hawkwood, in particular, gets referenced a number of times) this is a fun read and good research if you’re planning on writing about the period.

Also on the pile

Night’s Master – Tanith Lee. The first of the late Tanith Lee’s novels set on the Flat Earth, Night’s Master is a rich brew, reminiscent of the Arabian Nights in many ways but with a delicious darkness all of its own.

The Legacy of Alexander – A.B Bosworth

An examination of the Age of the Diadochi, the generals who inherited and fought over the empire of Alexander the Great, and the kingdoms that emerged from decades of warfare.

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