A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

At some point, I must have read a review of A Brief History of Seven Killings which intrigued me enough to buy the book, but I no longer remember it. A brief look online didn’t provide much in the way of clues as to why I thought this would be enjoyable. The historical context of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley was completely unfamiliar, and the phrase ‘crack wars in New York City’ not exactly promising for an entertaining read.

When a father turn away from him son, he can’t act shock when the son don’t know him no more.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

Marlon James’ style feels intentional; each character has a different voice, using ‘the Singer’ instead of Bob Marley’s name elevates him to a mythic figure and the stream-of-consciousness changes to reflect the emotional and mental states of his characters. Unfortunately, going in with no prior knowledge of events combined with vast array of narrators and the overload of detail made it difficult to pick out which people and events would prove to be important. The narrative is hard work for an uninformed reader, especially the middle section where the chapters are long enough to feel exhausting.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is also, as is to be expected, incredibly violent. As well as the advertised assassination and drug wars, there’s a lot of background violence, both sexual and otherwise, which certainly didn’t lighten the emotional load any. The Gallows Pole was similarly violent, but A Brief History of Seven Killings had none of that poetic prose to ease the relentlessly miserable experience almost all of the characters were having.

He’ll talk about it all the time but sideways like an Aesop fable, or a riddle and rhyme. He can shape and mold it and make it Greek, his word, not mine. I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about with that Greek shit. But that don’t mean he want anybody to say it back to him. Something happen when somebody tell you something about yourself even if you already know.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

What Marlon James did well was ratchet up the tension, especially just prior to the assassination attempt, but also before other explosive events. Even with no knowledge of what was coming, it was obvious that something was about to go down, which was emotionally engaging.

A reader who picked up A Brief History of Seven Killings because the blurb or real-life history sounded intriguing would probably enjoy it, this book just wasn’t for me, and I blame that more on whatever I read that interested me in it more than I blame it on the book itself.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I didn’t go looking for a second book club, but a Discord community I’m in started one up, and The Gallows Pole looked interesting enough to be worth manipulating my timetable a little to be able to fit it in. From the blurb, it sounded like a fast-paced historical crime novel which might suit my tastes for all things heist. The Gallows Pole wasn’t like that at all, but I still had a very good time with it and I’m glad B2 introduced me to it, as I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.

King David Hartley is the man’s name, said Jack Bentley. And if you don’t know it then you can’t run the woods like you say you do because everyone knows Bell Hole belongs to the Hartleys, and the moor above it and the sheep and the cows that graze them moors and the Hartleys own the sky above it too, and the kestrel and the hawk that hunt there and the hares that box there, and the clouds and the moon and the sun and everything that passes overhead.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

Some of the things that happen in The Gallows Pole are extremely nasty (seriously, check out the content warnings before you read if you are at all squeamish!), but Benjamin Myers’ prose is always rhythmic and enthralling. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kept drawing me in, but The Gallows Pole was written not quite like anything else I’ve read before. Deighton’s final scene is the perfect example of the juxtaposition of beautiful and horrible. Granted, it might be more difficult for readers with vivid visual imaginations or who feel the pain a character feels to get lost in the play of words next to each other, but for those of us who don’t, it really works.

Benjamin Myers makes unsympathetic characters sympathetic. Despite David Hartley’s violence, arrogance, homophobia, the reader wants to spend more time with him. Whether its the sections told from his perspective or the third-person narrative, he maintains and rewards that interest. Even lesser characters with serious flaws are still given their fair share of story. Actually sympathetic characters (like Grace) are rarely in the foreground, but Benjamin Myers uses them to good effect to keep The Gallows Pole from becoming an entirely bleak narrative.

Without you I’m certain this valley will fall fallow. The coining will die off and the men will lose their will to fight because no man will go back to the loom after having the taste of gold on his tongue.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

It’s not surprising that The Gallows Pole won a literary award. This is a book with definite themes, of class struggle, social mobility, history. If I were going to write an essay, I’d probably begin with something about inevitability and the enduring of myth. I also appreciated the structure, how the end mirrored the beginning.

The Gallows Pole was beautifully written and cleverly constructed, but those content warnings I mention would make me hesitate to recommend it to anyone who might not know what they were getting into.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

I’m always interested in authors — like Melina Marchetta and Joanne Harris — who are able to write in multiple genres. Though Chocolat is more famous, Gentlemen & Players was the first book by Joanne Harris that I read, so it’s only on rereading that I was able to draw comparisons to a non-thriller work. Though the plots are very different, there are similarities, especially in the prose, which is lovely and autumnal (even though Chocolat is primarily set in spring).

We hurried on, Marlene and I, through a night that was rich with smoke and shot with sparklers.

Gentlemen & Players, Joanne Harris

Gentlemen & Players is definitely thrilling. It took my breath away several times, and as soon as I’d finished I wanted to reread the whole book to really understand how cleverly it had been constructed. It’s difficult to go into specifics without spoiling the plot, so I will keep this review fairly brief.

She can feign anger or hide it when she needs to, knowing that a teacher must be above all a performer, always master of his audience and always in command of the stage.

Gentlemen & Players, Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris evoked a number of other books as I was reading Gentlemen & Players — from The Sandcastle and The Go-Between to Summerland and Devices & Desires. If you liked any of those, you’ll find something to like in this novel. I’m excited to carry on and read more of Joanne Harris’s work!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch — Firm Favourite

Cover: amazon.co.uk

Previous in the series: Red Seas Under Red Skies.

I have so many thoughts about The Republic of Thieves that I honestly don’t know where to begin! Everything I said about The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies still applies. These books might as well have been written specifically for me. They have con artists, pirates, theatrical troupes and a steadfast, loyal companion who will always be one of my favourite characters in anything ever. (I even started writing a parody song about him, which I may post if I ever get it finished.)

As in the first two books, I am a huge, huge fan of all the flashbacks to Locke’s younger days. It’s impossible to say that any one book has my favourite set of them, because I love them all, but I do absolutely love what we see of Sabetha in The Republic of Thieves. As Locke’s love interest, she had a lot to live up to, but she more than surpassed my expectations. There’s nothing simple or uncomplicated about Sabetha and yet, unlike some love interests I could name, she speaks plainly to Locke – both about her feelings and about their arguments.

“Let’s be obvious, me brute, you weasel.”
“Agreed. You brute, me charming mastermind. But there’s no sense in setting things too taut before we even know who we’re dealing with. Be a brute that plays nice until provoked.”
“So we’re not actually playing characters at all, then?”

The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

I adore that they argue. It makes the relationship feel so much more real. A lot of what I love about it is the same as what I love about seeing Locke and Jean together. They know each other well to make each other miserable, and yet they’re still both trying to make things right. It feels a lot more adult than some fantasy relationships, and I think Sabetha has a lot to do with that.

Similarly, Locke and Jean talk about some pretty complex topics in The Republic of Thieves. They have a genuinely rational, erudite conversation about religious symbolism and nightmares. It’s conversations like that which allow me to maintain my faith in Scott Lynch. Even when he hints at some things I’m not the biggest fan of…

Which brings me to spoiler-territory! There is simply no point reviewing this book without talking about the big, potentially series-changing twist that happens. Consider yourself warned!

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch — Firm Favourite

Previous in the series: The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Fantasy heist meets pirate adventure: Red Seas Under Red Skies couldn’t be more made for me if it tried. Or maybe it could, it opens with a scene of betrayal and backstabbing. I love a clever treason, especially if there are pirates involved.

‘Tonight is delicate business,’ said Drakasha. ‘Misstepping in Port Prodigal after midnight is like pissing on an angry snake. I need -‘
‘Ahem,’ said Locke. ‘Originally, we’re from Camorr.’
‘Oh. Be on the boat in five minutes,’ said Drakasha.

—  Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch

What I love most about Red Seas Under Red Skies (apart from everything) is the continuation of the friendship between Locke and Jean. In the early part of the novel, Scott Lynch once again uses the structure of interwoven timelines to visit some of Jean and Locke’s worst moments: when they’re at each other’s throats or wallowing in self-pity and grief. By showing those moments, when they can still need each other and rely on each other without liking each other very much, Scott Lynch makes the relationship so much more real. It reminded me a little of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts.

This is where you and I are headed, Thorn – or at least you are. Look for us in history books and you’ll find us in the margins. Look for us in legends and you might just find us celebrated.

—  Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch

One of The Lies of Locke Lamora‘s few flaws is the absence of important female characters. Red Seas Under Red Skies goes some way to make up for that. Both Captain Zamira Drakasha and Lieutenant Ezri Delmastro are badass pirate women – but not uncomplicatedly badass. Zamira has a maternal side, and the friendship between the two women does a lot to round them out as characters. There’s also a love story. While it doesn’t get a lot of page space, it’s nonetheless effective. (Though I might be biased, because I love anyone who loves my favourite character.)

‘You are the only thing,’ she whispered through the iron grip of her embrace, ‘the only thing on this whole fucking ocean that’s mine, Jean Tannen.’

—  Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch

After about the first third, Red Seas Under Red Skies drops the device of going back and forth between timelines (for the most part). I honestly kind of miss it, and I think the middle of the book suffers ever so slightly from being so very linear. The end more than makes up for it, packing in so much action and tying together so many lose ends that even on this reread, I raced through the last couple of hundred pages.

Despite the pirates, I don’t love Red Seas Under Red Seas quite as much as I love The Lies of Locke Lamora, but that’s an exceptionally high bar! If you’ve ever read a crossover fic between Ocean’s Eleven and Pirates of the Caribbean, you should read this! (That crossover doesn’t actually exist, more is the pity.)

Next, I’ll be reading Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Next in the series: The Republic of Thieves.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch — Firm Favourite

Cover: amazon.co.uk

The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of those books I’ve loved for so long that I don’t even remember how I found out about it. It originated my love of fantasy heists. I read a quotation once, about how a book is made up of character, prose and plot. A good book will excel at one of those, a great book might excel at two and a masterpiece has all three in spades. For me, The Lies of Locke Lamora is that masterpiece.

He wasn’t training us for a calm and orderly world where we could pick and choose when we needed to be clever. He was training us for a situation that was fucked up on all sides. Well, we’re in it, and I say we’re equal to it. I don’t need to be reminded that we’re up to our heads in dark water. I just want you boys to remember that we’re the gods-damned sharks.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

I’ve previously described the plot, in the broadest possible terms, as ‘Ocean’s Eleven set in fantasy Venice’. That captures some of the flavour, but fails to really do the story justice. In the opening chapters, Scott Lynch masterfully juggles at least four different timelines without ever being confusing. He cuts away from the action at the most exciting moment, only to plunge you into another part of the story which you’re just as eager to read about. Loads of stuff happens in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but these carefully-paced ‘interludes’ keep it from feeling relentless.

World-building isn’t mentioned as one of the three things every masterpiece must have, but nonetheless it shines in The Lies of Locke Lamora. Camorr is gritty and dark, but also spectacularly beautiful. Similarly, it is peopled with genuine bastards but also gentlemen thieves that I, at least, fell completely in love with. (Jean Tannen earns his place in the list of steadfast fantasy companions alongside Samwise Gamgee and Neville Longbottom.) I’m not usually one for long descriptions of scenery, and yet I never find myself bored when Scott Lynch dives deep into the detail of the world he has built. I’m particularly fascinated by the religion in these books. It’s woven through so sparingly, it leaves me desperate for there to be more.

I’ve hinted at the character aspect of this novel above. The relationship between Jean and Locke is one of my favourite in anything. The weaving of past and present narratives give you the opportunity to really follow these characters for longer than the duration of the novel. If you’ve ever read a review of The Lies of Locke Lamora, you’ll know that Scott Lynch reduces most fans to gasps and tears with the fates of some of those characters.1 I don’t so often see people talk about how The Lies of Locke Lamora makes them laugh, but at least in my case it reliably does.

Damn, but the boy seemed to be constitutionally incapable of remaining in high places for any length of time.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

As I was reading, I found myself thinking a lot about trust. I trust Scott Lynch as an author. (There are some things in later books that I’m unsure about, but at least for the moment I trust that he’ll pull them off well.) I trust that The Thorn of Emberlain (book four in the series) will eventually come out, and that it will be worth the wait when it does.

I’d recommend The Lies of Locke Lamora to anyone who liked Six of Crows or A Darker Shade of Magic. Do be warned, the book is at times quite graphically violent and deeply nasty. There’s a lot of swearing, too. I wouldn’t say those are elements that attract me to books normally, but The Lies of Locke Lamora is still one of my favourite books of all time, so don’t let it put you off too much.

1 If this is your first: yes, I gasped and cried too.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Next in the series: Red Sea under Red Skies.

The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes — New Review

It seems that ‘fantasy heist’ is slowly becoming a subgenre, or perhaps I’m just slowly becoming aware of its existence. The Palace Job is the third fantasy heist I’ve read, and sadly is also the one I like least. It’s not a bad book, by any means, it’s just that The Lies of Locke Lamora and Six of Crows are both excellent, so The Palace Job had a lot to live up to.

“Word on the street says you’ve taken down lot of rich bastards.”

“Well, the poor bastards don’t have much money, or any challenging safes.”

The Palace Job, Patrick Weekes

I enjoyed a lot of things about Patrick Weekes’ writing. The Palace Job is frequently funny, and he does some interesting things with perspective and the main character not speaking in the opening section of the book. Both the beginning and the ending were engagingly written and fast-paced, though I did have a little trouble visualising the more complicated action scenes. I can appreciate what Patrick Weekes was trying to do by giving the reader perspectives outside of those involved in the con, but I didn’t particularly enjoy those sections.

Pyvic was tall, which had been a disadvantage in the war, and fast, which was an advantage almost anywhere.

The Palace Job, Patrick Weekes

Where The Palace Job fell down for me was in the middle section, where Loch was getting the team together, and while they were planning. I’ve no objection to romance in my fantasy heists when it’s done well, but this seemed shoehorned in. Everyone seemed to be getting together, without very much justification as to why or how or when, and they read a little like teenagers who were more interested in their love lives than the con they were trying to pull off.

The magic in The Palace Job is a lot more fantastical than I’m used to in this kind of novel. For someone else, that may not be a problem, but I found Ululenia the Unicorn a little over-the-top. I’d recommend this to people who found Scott Lynch and Leigh Bardugo to be too bleak.

Next, I’ll be reading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

Rating: 2 out of 5.