Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Complete Chronicles of Conan by Robert E Howard

To read this anthology is almost like a history tour of the fantasy genre. Howard wrote in the nineteen twenties and thirties. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings came along later than this. For whatever reason, it is Tolkien's 'high fantasy' that is the most readily identifiable for of fantasy writing today, as opposed to Howard's 'swords and sorcery' style. The Dungeons and Dragons type role-playing game draw heavily from the Howard tradition, but fantasy writers over the last twenty-five years have pretty much taken their cues from Tolkien.

Which explains why the fantasy genre is just so tired today.

With writers falling over themselves to imitate a 1940s English professor, there's not a lot of room for progress in the genre. There are a few good works in the genre, but these come from writers who so pointedly avoid Tolkien-imitation and go for something different. Writers like George RR Martin, or Terry Pratchett who make the genre turn tricks like a dog. Or Naomi Novik, who works wonders by placing a fantasy icon (dragons) into a different setting (Napoleonic).

Back to Howard.

This anthology is collected in the order in which the stories were published, with some fragments and unpublished (ie rejected) tales at the end. The tales vary wildly in Conan's life. In some, he is ensconced as king of Aquilonia, next, he's a thief trying his luck. There is a remarkable consistency of these tales, of character and place as well as of theme. Conan at any age spills from the page fully formed. The other characters who appear in his tales manage to make their own space, and are not simply canvas figures through which Conan moves. The tales are all ultimately about Conan, but this is not a one-note record.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's discworld is a broad canvas, allowing for diverse stories and characters to be developed. Wintersmith is the third book featuring young witch Tiffany Aching as its protagonist.

Some of Pratchett's older characters return as wise guardians, or irritating meddlers.

This series is sold as being for younger readers, but regular discworld visitors will find no interruption to their normal service here.

Again Pratchett uses the discworld to hold a mirror to our own. Not a straight mirror you understand. More a series of warped carnival mirrors. Our own world is reflected back, but wonderfully warped.

In this case what we get back is a coming of age story with similar themes but a different setting.

Dealing with the interest of an older man, relating to your friends even as you all go your separate ways, and learning to manipulate even as you are manipulated in turn are all common coming of age themes given the Pratchett treatment here .

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sun Tzu --The Art of War--

The Art of War is an ancient text of Chinese origin, and is perhaps more well-known that it is well-read.

Sun Tzu's book details his and his family's accumulated knowledge on fighting battles and winning wars. Sun Tzu came from a family of military advisors, and so was well-placed to do this.

The words of wisdom in this book are set forth in a few short sentences. For the non-native speaker, the key to reading The Art of War is to find an agreeable translation. Most bookshops will have several editions on their shelves, and each can be looked at in turn. Find a translator whose approach suits your own reading needs.

The Art of War is a book to be considered as well as read. Approaching it as any other book, to simply be read page after page and then put aside is a way to reduce the experience this book provides. Read slowly, write down your own thoughts. The Art of War demands your participation, your interaction.

For best results, have several people you know read this, and come together to discuss it. Regardless of the original purpose of The Art of War, this book speaks to people on many different levels. Don't expect to experience this book alone.