Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A dystopian young adult novel and R.I.P.

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Last week I finally got round to reading The Hunger Games, a disturbing dystopia tale set in a world of persecution and exploitation, where reality television is carried to its frightening and entirely logical conclusion.  In this world, what was once North America has been transformed into an exploitative dictatorship where the society is divided into districts based on what they produce, those districts are then forced each year to send two of their young residents to participate in what is the society's equivalent of gladiatorial games.  A ritual designed to maintain fear and control in a subjugated society. 

The main character, Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister's place when she is selected as one of district twelve's two tributes.  The idea of young tributes selected and sent to appease the capital's appetite for violence is very reminiscent of the classical Greek tale of the Minotaur, where Athens is forced to send tributes to Crete to appease the blood lust of the monster but even by classical standards this is a bloody and violent tale.  This is a world where each district must send two tributes each, a boy and a girl, chosen from amongst their youngest and most vulnerable members to be transported to a unique arena to literally fight to the death, forced to kill each other not only in order survive themselves but also in order to ensure the safety of their communities and families back home, and all of this dramatic violence is televised for the entertainment of the capital and the society at large, a  kind of Logan's Run for this generation, or a televised Lord of the Flies, Survivor with real consequences.

This is a dark and dramatic, if essentially simple tale, Collins throws in some romance in a love story, sub plot between the two adolescents from district twelve but even this romance is something the capital essentially seeks to exploit for entertainment.  Mutation and genetic engineering also feature within this dystopian mythology.  The big brother themantics of 1984 are also a feature of this dark thriller.  Certainly this is a very pacy narrative, one that grabs the reader and demands their continued attention until the very end, the end of this book is, however, not the end, as the story continues into two more titles making up a trilogy, I must admit I am intrigued to know how Collings will resolve this dark drama.  Will the districts rebel and ultimately overthrow the capital or will the story continue at the merely personal level?  This is an interesting young adult title, interesting for the dark nature of the story line as much for the gripping quality of the narrative.  Collings effectively draws the reader into Katniss'world making this a very diverting novel, compelling and hard to escape.

I have not yet read my second R.I.P.  novel and while I have a couple of books  on the shelves that might satisfy the criteria, I think I could safely count The Hunger Games as a R.I.P. title, certainly it is a thriller and a kind of dark fantasy set as it is a disturbing dystopian future where the state forces children to kill while it also engineers monsters to add to the bloody drama of their conflicts.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Clockwork man and Imbibing peril!

Burton & Swinburne in
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
byMark Hodder

Since I decided to participate in the annual R.I.P. challenge this novel which was already in my TBR pile has become my first title for the challenge.  Does it fit the criteria? Well it does feature ghostly apparitions and zombies and it is certainly a thrilling ride, more than anything, though, it is good, old fashioned, pulp fiction fun.  I have to say up front that I have really enjoyed both of the Burton & Swinburne titles available to date, this title and it's predecessor, The strange affair of Spring heeled Jack.  Mark Hodder has successfully created a great addition to the growing steampunk cannon and given us an entertaining narrative to while away the hours.

From the back cover:
London 1862.  A lost aristocrat returns and the steam wraiths rise!
Sir Roger Tichborne: Lost at sea but now he's back to claim his family fortune.  Or is he?  To the upper classes, he's obviously a cunning  swindler; to London's laborers, he's the peoples hero ... while to Sir Richard Francis Burton,he's the focus of a daring plot to gain possession of the legendary black diamonds known as the Eyes of Naga.  Burton's investigation takes him to the cursed Tichborne estate ... and to an encounter with the ghost of a witch!

Like the previous novel Hodder takes real events and personalities and essentially plays with them, weaving a fiction out of the thread of history.  In this volume Hodder adds the philosopher Herbert Spenser to the mix and  Charles Altamont Doyle, (father of Arthur Conan Doyle) just to name two, other significant figures also appear, but historical figures in Hodder's work bear only the flimsiest resemblance to their historical selves, rather they become far more outrageous figures in Hodder's hands and their personal histories are only relevant to the point that they enhance Hodder's narrative.  The playing with 19th century history is half the fun of these books, and they are fun, old fashioned, escapist fun, literature they are not.

A logical underpinning of the narrative is key to Hodder's story and so even supernatural elements are explained in pseudo scientific terms.  Like the previous Burton & Swinburne novel we are treated to an alternative history where technology is exceeding its historical limits and developments are rapid.  This is a  world where genetic engineering arrives long before it's reality and while Hodder's universe is far more dependent on the tropes of science fiction, elements of fantasy still exist his work.  One of my favourite inventions was the cactus gun, a by product of horticultural genetic manipulation gone feral, which amongst other things turns Ireland into an uninhabitabitable jungle of dangerous and often carnivorous plants all because of failed attempts to deal with the problem of potato blight.

Hodder also makes great use of established mythologies; ghosts, zombies and fairies are re-evaluated in what is an entertaining tale.  It must be said that Burton and Swinburne are great editions to fiction's hall of heroes.  The real men on which these characters are based must be seen as an absolute gift to steampunk.  Sir Richard Burton is like something straight out of boys own adventures; a famous explorer and geographer, a master swordsman, an exceptional linguist and master of disguise, who in his early career worked as a spy for the British in India and Swinburne the pre-Raphaelite poet with a reputation for deviancy and outrageous behaviour, outwardly the two men seem quite different, the soldier and the poet, and yet clearly they had much in common, since a very real friendship existed between these two remarkable men.  Hodder has made great use of some basic historical fact and transformed it into entertaining and creative narrative.  I am looking forward to the next installment in the Burton & Swinburne saga, while the Curious case of the clockwork man, can be read as a stand alone novel it does set up a link to the next adventure.

First book for R.I.P. done, still not sure what my second novel will be.  If I don't find something else perhaps I will read the Arthur Conan Doyle novel The Sign of the Four, a novel I have been meaning to re-read.