Reading: La Belle Assassin’s Railroad 1322


Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Pure, delicious, sit-back-and-let-it-consume-you fantasy. Not exactly the action-packed quest I went in expecting, but a leisurely-paced tale set mostly in and around Buckkeep, the home of the royal family of the Six Duchies, with all the intrigue and tensions you’d hope for from such a setting – along with an almost ludicrous quantity of dogs. Our mild-mannered protagonist FitzChivalry has many sides: half royal, half not, raised as a stable-boy, now a controversial figure in the royal court, now secretly training to be an assassin, and all while trying to rein in his Wit, a telepathic connection he feels with animals which his lovably gruff guardian Burrich insists is Against the Natural Order of Things. Some of the early chapters rang a little more innocent and wholesome than the fare my cynical adult brain is used to, but either I adjusted to this or it got darker and twistier as it went along. Either way, by the middle I’d resigned myself to picking up the entirety of Robin Hobb’s catalogue in future, so I suspect all of it was doing important work somewhere in the back rooms of my brain.


Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

If you read and liked Assassin’s Apprentice, I’d be rather confused if you didn’t like this at least as much. Again things move slowly, but it is a purposeful kind of slow, the methodical construction of a grand story by a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing. And again, Fitz spends much of the book just to-ing and fro-ing at Buckkeep, making friends, getting into trouble, losing friends, patching up his mistakes as best he can, regaining friends, uncovering treacheries, making enemies and generally spinning plates to try to balance his many disparate responsibilities, as some of them come into painful conflict with each other. As in Rowling or Rothfuss, we feel each of the protagonist’s triumphs as a triumph of our own, each of his failings as a sinking in our stomachs. This, to me, is what’s somewhat lacking in the more relentlessly grimdark fantasy of nowadays. It’s all very well constantly slaughtering characters in gruesome ways, but if you don’t establish them as people worth caring about, how much impact does that really have? It’s not all subtle character moments though; towards the end of this volume, things get so intense that your well-intentioned plans to take a break and read something else before starting the third book may go a-circlin’ right down the toilet. Mine did, anyway.


Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

A bit of a departure from the previous two books – if you’ve finished book two you’ll have some idea why. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more travelling in this one, taking us far away from familiar faces and into uncharted territory. It’s refreshing, though a childish part of me (the part that desperately yearned for Hogwarts throughout Deathly Hallows) just wanted Fitz to get back to Buckkeep and for everything to be the way it was. This yearning probably aligned my own feelings quite closely with Fitz’s, so maybe Robin Hobb planned it that way. Again, as I’m drawn deeper into her world, it’s hard not to suspect that she plans her readers’ every blink, since she clearly understands storytelling on a level beyond our lowly three-dimensional plane. Okay, I did put this book down for a while in the middle, as I was slowing down and needed to read other things – but she probably planned for that too, as when I came back I was all the way back into the adventure within pages. As a conclusion to the trilogy Assassin’s Quest delivers both epic moments and a few good twisting knives to the gut, but on another level all three books still feel somewhat like an introduction to Hobb’s world. Well, I’m perfectly fine with that. I have a feeling I’ll be staying here a while.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

A girl goes missing from a small English town, and if you think you already know what kind of book this is, you’re wrong. Reservoir 13 is written in an unusual style – the whole thing reads like the parts of other books that are designed to convey the passage of time in between key scenes. For the first ten or so pages I was patiently waiting for one of these key scenes to kick in – for our lead characters to make themselves known, start using direct dialogue, give us a sense of what the central driving force of the plot is going to be. But no. Instead things just keep happening – seasons change, years change, people change, kids grow up, sheep graze, harvests are reaped – and all related in a voice that I might describe, if I were feeling less kind, as like the minutes of a community council meeting. I’ll say this though: having been made to question it, I do find it hard to make the case that building a traditional genre story around the tragic disappearance of a child ISN’T just a little bit icky. If that revelation was what the book was trying to provoke, mission accomplished. But that might not be what it was going for at all. It’s kinda hard to tell, to be honest.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This lightly Gaiman-esque tale combines a rather harrowing depiction of slavery in the southern United States with a single element of fantasy: the titular underground railroad, which existed in reality as a covert anti-slavery movement, is here given a more literal existence as a network of tunnels and trains. The literalisation of this metaphor occasionally makes you forget that many of the more horrific events portrayed in this story actually happened, meaning that this realisation keeps creeping up on you throughout the book, coming as a fresh shock each time. It also gives the impression that some cosmic force – not just other decent human beings – is looking out for the oppressed. This makes parts of The Underground Railroad feel like a kind of escapism; I was never quite sure whether I was supposed to be reading it that way or as a hard-hitting portrait of slavery. Perhaps this is a tension inherent in all fantasy, but it felt more jarring than usual here. Not that jarring is a bad thing – as far as I’m concerned, if that’s what it takes to break our minds out of society’s prescribed ways of thinking about difficult subjects, jar away. Even if one ignorant white guy like me doesn’t appreciate all the subtleties, someone more important surely will.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I went into this worried that, as many prequels tend to do, this book would rely much too heavily on references to and nostalgia for the original series. And while the slow-moving first half of La Belle Sauvage could perhaps be accused of that, the second half very much feels like its own thing – a surreal journey blending fairytale and Bible story. The protagonists are likeable enough, if sometimes a little similar to those from His Dark Materials, but the show is stolen by the villain Gerard Bonneville, whose brilliantly creepy characterisation carries much of the book. Like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, this book also undermines some of the cosiness and security readers might associate with the original series; as Cursed Child made me think “oh yeah, even if I went to Hogwarts I might still have been a social outcast”, this one made me think “oh yeah, even if I had a daemon we might not get along with each other”. Plus at points it strips away the metaphors employed in HDM to lay bare some very ugly themes, which feels in keeping with the uncomfortable but largely positive cultural shifts of our times. An interesting and striking return to Lyra’s world, but doesn’t feel essential in quite the same way His Dark Materials did. Not yet, anyway.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

The very deliberately worded title of this short story collection suggests that love is not something that can be neatly summed up by a paragraph in a dictionary, but a complex cultural idea defined by all the contexts in which humans use it. It made me read this book as an attempt to define love, based on what it means to different people, and if the stories here do genuinely define love, it’s certainly not all roses and romance – it’s awkward conversations and awkward sex and awkward breakups and awkward Christmas reunions – and things even worse than awkwardness, if you can imagine. I found these stories were best enjoyed as ambiguous snapshots of scenes, like old out-of-context photographs. The title story and ‘The Bath’ are two that stick in my mind, but even they are of the variety to which my immediate response is “wait, is that the end?”, and of which I find myself having to piece together the possible meanings afterwards, with mixed success. My old university side must be getting rusty, as I’ve found it hard to know what to take away from many of the more literary works I’ve read lately. From this one, I can only draw the rather obvious conclusion that love is the hardest thing in the world aside from not having any.

The Book of the Year by No Such Thing as a Fish

A book filled with strange and interesting facts about the year 2017, compiled by the same four cheeky folk who produce the consistently entertaining podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. I suspect the normal version of the book would be fun to flick through on a rainy day, but if you like the podcast I’d highly recommend the audio version, which is quite unique in that it features little audio-exclusive tangents as the four frequently chip in with the sort of witty comments that will be familiar to their fans. And if you haven’t heard No Such Thing as a Fish, I would strongly recommend checking it out. I know, it’s one of those things that sounds like it’ll be funny in a sort of cosy low-key BBC afternoon radio have-a-little-intellectual-chuckle-to-yourself-over-tea-and-custard-creams way, but thanks to the chemistry between the incredibly clever and funny hosts, it is often genuinely laugh-out-loud-on-the-bus hilarious.


Maus by Art Spiegelman

A bold attempt to capture the horrors of the Holocaust in graphic novel form. I’m sure much ink has been spilled debating whether this is appropriate, but to me this debate is not only a waste of time, but borderline offensive considering the depth and breadth of comics as an art form and the extent to which they were pioneered by Jewish artists. Also controversial was (and still is, based on the fiery debates at my book club) Spiegelman’s use of animals to depict various races of people, though how anyone can get through this book thinking this isn’t a deliberate choice to highlight the cartoonish absurdity of racial stereotyping is a mystery to me. The structure is also worthy of note, as it erases the line between fiction and non-fiction: we flash back and forth between a relatively benign present in which Spiegelman himself quizzes his understandably cranky father about his Holocaust experiences, and the up-close-and-personal story of his father’s journey, rife with betrayal, despair and an almost unbearable sense of oppression. Maus is a great book and an essential read, especially in these troubling times. If we refuse to learn from the stories contained here, what possible hope is there for humanity?

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

If ever there was a classic piece of literature that feels as though it’s trolling you, it’s Catch-22. In Alex terms, it’s somewhere at the intersection of Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett and… um… Blackadder Goes Forth? Hear me out: it’s darkly absurd, stuffed with silly jokes and contradictions and paradoxes and phrases being repeated until they lose all meaning; there’s even a character named Major Major Major Major who regularly climbs out the window of his office to avoid meeting people. Frankly, it’s ridiculous. And long. And in places infuriating, especially if you aren’t on board with its particular style of wasting your time. But it’s also a classic for a reason – it’s a stunningly bold and unique portrayal of war, not as glorious, or even as unfortunate but necessary, but as absolutely, upside-down-and-back-to-front-ly, mind-twistingly awful. It took me a long old time to get into this book, and I still have some issues with its portrayal of the female characters – surely Heller could have turned a bit more of his indomitable sardonic wit on the absurdity of the gender relations portrayed here? But overall, this is an important work and one that deserves to be read and studied for a long time. Plus, of course, the titular phrase is a contribution to the language of dystopia worthy of Orwell himself.

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