Shades Of Words


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Midnight Riot: London’s Wizarding Cops

10327417Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot ( Rivers of London UK Edition) suffers a bit from an identity crisis. It tries to be a fantasy-fiction story, a police procedural, a London guide, a commentary on race and a murder novel all wrapped in one and it fails. There is so much going on in every single page, that I would often not remember how I arrived a particular point in the story and whether it was significant.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Peter Grant, our hero, the wizard in making (don’t get your hopes high people, this is NOT anything like Harry Potter) is a newly graduated Police Constable in the Met (the police force, not the NY museum). His main function includes standing in the cold London air guarding scenes of crime. The story starts at the death of a William Skirmish who is bludgeoned to death by a wealthy British producer for no apparent reason. On the scene of crime, Peter Grant is accosted by a ghost (yup, you read that right) who gives him a tip on the crime. This tip brings Grant firmly into the center of the magical world of London, with Chief Inspector Nightingale (The Wizard) as his guide. This murder embroils them in similar crimes and a hunt begins for the entity causing them all.
While trying to stay on top of the case, our wizarding coppers are also dragged in a property dispute between Mother and Father Thames.The Gods of the rivers of London are mythical creatures personified in people who drowned in them. Magic exists but is a more ambiguous concept and it’s hard to know how much power anyone really possesses. A lot of time is spent referencing the history of London rivers, old magic articles and theories, but instead of being entertaining, these snippets of information appear like wiki entries. I learned more about the underground rivers of London than I  would ever want to know.
The plot is generally all over the place. Nightingale and Grant are called on to investigate several other crimes and these diversions take away from the central storyline. All characters are very two-dimensional and because there is so much happening on the page that it’s hard to spend time with anyone character long enough.
Lot of emphasis is laid on explaining magic through science – you see the fallacy, right? If magic could be explained through science, it wouldn’t be magic anymore – it would just be ‘how things work’. The intention is great and they do ride the ‘energy in the universe is constant’ wave for some time before hitting a roadblock and hitting unexplainable phenomena. Why do rivers have spirits? Why some people can feel vestigia and others can’t? When Peter asks those questions, Nightingale (his mentor and teacher) basically shrugs his shoulders and says “dunno”. As a reader, that is extremely disappointing.
Also, there is much ado about everything – Nightingales’ age , impact of magic on technology, the magical effect of vampires – there is a lot of build up to all these questions but the reveal is extremely underwhelming.
There is only one thing going for this book – humour. The dialogs are sharp, the wit dry – very similar to watching a sitcom. The humour is literally what endured me through the 250 odd pages. But I doubt I will pick the second book in the series.
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Carmilla

Before Bram Stoker made the love (or hate) for Vampires mainstream, a 100 page story by Sheridan Le Fanu written in 1872 laid the foundation for Dracula. Carmilla is a gripping gothic tale steeped in darkness, cold and death. It begins innocently enough and even then the sense of anticipation of something about to go wrong is palpable. The opening lines that describe the estate and its location set the tone for horrors that will unfold.

Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary. It stands on a slight eminence in a forest. The road, very old and narrow, passes in front of its drawbridge, never raised in my time, and its moat, stocked with perch, and sailed over by many swans, and floating on its surface white fleets of water lilies.Over all this the schloss shows its many-windowed front; its towers, and its Gothic chapel. The forest opens in an irregular and very picturesque glade before its gate, and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the wood.

As a reader you are just settling into this remote deceptively beautiful place, when the narrator and heroine, Laura experiences an extraordinarily chilly encounter of the other kind. From that moment onwards there is a never a dull moment in the book.

The central theme of the book is the relationship between Laura and their surprise visitor, a beautiful young girl named Carmilla and how she changes Laura’s life.  Laura, who leads an almost solitary existence with her father and governesses, is really excited to finally have a companion of her own age. The friendship is clearly homosexual, most definitely from Carmilla’s side. Laura, deprived of friends and besotted with Carmilla’s beauty, enjoys the affectionate gestures of her new friend but gets extremely comfortable with the wild expressions of passions. If there are any doubts to the nature of their relationship, lines like these will remove them.

Shy and strange was the look with which she [Carmilla] quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled. Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

During Carmilla’s stay, strange happenings happen in the village and Laura’s health begins to decline. Now, because we know beforehand that it’s a story about vampires, as readers we are not so puzzled by the strange events. As Laura describes her strange experiences, the plot gives itself away.

Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep. The prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill which we feel in bathing, when we move against the current of a river… Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself. 

The rest of the story is basically the unraveling of the cause of Laura’s troubles and the truth about Carmilla and her past, which though predictable makes for quite horrific reading. It’s interesting to observe that beyond the supernatural elements and obvious gothic elements of the story (lonely castles, female victims, old family portraits, missing maternal influence) there is something to be said of the portrayal of women. So while Mr. Le Fanu takes the enterprise of writing the story in a female voice, he essentially sees the world from a male’s point of view. The female characters are either victims or devils, or as important as the furniture in the room. The saviors are all men, ofcourse. That brings me to the important point of why did Mr. Le Fanu chose to write a gothic tale about lesbian vampires, was he just giving in to the male fantasy of watching two women get it on?

Footnote: While reading Carmilla, I also found references to what would probably be the first inspiration for how ghosts are visually depicted in Korean movies. Read on and tell me if you don’t agree

The room was lighted by the candle that burnt there all through the night, and I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little at the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still. There was not the slightest stir of respiration. As I stared at it, the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out.


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Watching the seventh movie, made me go back and read the books again. Although I have re-read almost all the books several times, it really amazes me that these are still as engaging as in 2000 when I first started with the series.

In this post I will attempt to analyze the first book and a bit of the series and why it works. After all, fantasy fiction genre has a lot of literature to its credit – what was so unique about Harry Potter that it “revived” the reading culture, spawned a multi-million dollar movie franchise, gave a new life to fantasy literature and basically created history. Yes, savvy marketing and media generated hype for sure – but there is surely more credit to be given.

Let’s take a look at book one specifically. The book starts with an unusually quiet scene in a non-descript suburban neighborhood with something extraordinary going on – a cat that can turn into a woman, a flying motorcycle, an orphaned child and old man who most definitely is a sorcerer. You have to know what comes next! So in the very first chapter an interesting premise has been established.

Then the theme of the series is established in the first few chapters – “underdog wins the day”. No matter how many books and movies use this theme, it always works. Even though Harry Potter is this really famous wizard and is a celebrity – he is still the underdog. Its remarkable how JK Rowling creates this dual persona for him – super famous wizard since 1 year old, but orphaned, abused as a child, love hungry, dying to be someone. He comes to Hogwarts with no advantage – right from the beginning your heart goes out to him and you want him to win.

The third thing that interest you are the characters – for me a book never works if I can’t somehow empathize with the characters. And it’s easier said than done. JK Rowling does that with not just creating one but several immensely pleasant characters. But mostly she creates three very likeable protagonists – again not easy.

Harry, by the age of eleven, has had a pretty miserable life. It’s high time he was happy.  As a person he is quite nice – he is witty, intelligent, a little rebellious, eager to learn and so desperate to be loved. He may not be the perfect role model like “Hermione” but he has his heart in the right place – he inherently wants to be good. He is a believable hero.

How can you heart not go out to Ron Weasley – the youngest of six brothers, always getting hand me downs , destined to be friends with the most famous wizard in school – always living in the shadows.  In spite of his disadvantages, he is friendly, kind and fiercely loyal.

And then there is Hermione, my absolute favorite  character of the book. She may be slightly bookish and very competitive but she is intensely loyal, earnest, generous and the most compassionate of the three. She has the most defined moral values and sees generally sees things in black and white unlike her two best friends. Without her brilliance and presence of mind, Harry and Ron just can’t get very far.

Hagrid and Dumbledore are also very important characters in the first book. I believe that these two characters sort of fill the “paternal void” in Harry’s life as they mentor him through his first year at Hogwarts. The fact that they knew his parents also ties them to Harry strongly

The other ingredient to the story is the magical world that JKR creates – Hogwarts is fascinating and your mind leaps and bounces as you try to create mental images of moving pictures, hidden staircases, dark dungeons and the great hall. Wouldn’t a place like Diagon Alley be fun and entertaining? The attention to detail in creating this other world makes you almost wish that it was real.

The last but not the least, and what I believe is the defining reason as to why everyone is hooked from Book 1 is that, at the end of the day the saga of Harry Potter is really a puzzle. Every chapter in the first book reveals little pieces of the puzzle, and as we will read ahead, every book is a huge chunk of the larger story, but the complete picture remains  elusive till the end. As you read book one, there are so many questions to be asked – Why did Harry survive Voldemort’s attack? What was stolen from the safe at Gringotts? Why does the sorting hat suggest Harry be in Slytherin? What is the significance of The Mirror of Erised? Why does Dumbeldore see socks in it? Why is it “curious” that the wand that has chosen Harry is the twin of the wand that left the scar on his forehead? Will Voldemort return? What is Snape’s agenda? What were Harry’s parents like? Why did Voldemort attack Harry? What is Harry’s destiny?

Some of the questions get answered in the first book and others later. And sometimes, there are people, incidents and conversations that seem irrelevant but make much more sense later on.

The Philosopher’s Stone’s main purpose is to basically lay down the main characters, relationships, plot and landmarks for the larger story to unfold. It’s a very good start to a very entertaining story.

If you are interested in the movies, do check out  my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part


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Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

‘Twilight’ is a book for the young adult segment and being on the wrong side of 25 I am not sure I am qualified to review it. However, I have read it, I have an opinion and I want to say it out loud.

‘Twilight’ is one of those rTwlight-full;init_are books that appear to much better than they actually are. The plot is basically this –  ‘the love story of Isabella, a young  teenage girl and Edward,  a vegetarian vampire ‘. Quite enticing, right? Well, don’t be fooled.  The book is nothing more than a high-class Mills & Boons.

This is it how it goes – Boy  meets girl. Instant repulsion and attraction. Boy larger than life, perfect, knows everything plus vampire. Girl feisty, short-tempered and intelligent but forever the damsel in distress. Boy saves girl. Girl a melting candle in the arms of boy.  Blah blah blah..you know how the rest goes.

Well, it’s not that bad. It starts of brilliantly and you are hooked. You admire Bella for being more than the average teenager, you relate to her clumsiness and her inexplicable crush on a guy in her class. But that’s about it.

Yes, Edwards is a vampire and yes, he is drop-dread gorgeous and yes, he is always saving her life but is that an excuse for Bella to become a pushover? The minute he enters her life she loses her essence. Her whole world is centered around him. She loses the spunk that she had. Even the final face-off with the enemy (a bad vampire who wants to eat her, seriously !!!) is clichéd and unimaginative.

I think Bella and Edwards are really bad teen models but not every book has to  be about values so that is not really one of Twilight’s major faults.  The story line is flimsy, the characters not developed. I could not muster any empathy for any character. Somehow I can’t believe in ‘tell death do us part’ story for a bunch of 17 years old. It might make for good TV but not for reading.

This book had the potential to be really dark and concrete. It could have been so much more intense and mature.

Verdict: Skip it


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The Flying Sorcerers

Assorted tales of comic fiction – edited by Peter Haining

pic_shsttfspb-full;init_I am not a major science fiction fan but always appreciate an entertaining or thought provoking storyline and I got plenty of those as I read the ‘The Flying Sorcerers’. A motley collection of humorous fantasy tales, it covers a mix of science fiction and the supernatural.

What makes the book really special is :

A) It has the earlier works of some of the best names in the business – Terry Prachet, Arthur Clarker, PG Wodehouse ( I was surprised too!!) , CS Lewis to list a few

B) Every story begins with a little background on story telling in that genre and its interesting to learn more about authors and literature in that category

C) And lastly but most importantly is the collection of stories itself. Loosely classified under ‘Comic tales of fantasy’ each story is written with a sense of irony or humor – no story takes itself too seriously. Therein lies the entertainment.

The book has a collection of around 30 stories , some of the more remarkable ones being ‘Turntables of the night’ , ‘A Slice of Life’, ‘Danse Macabre’, ‘The Right Side’ ,’ The Shrink and the Mink’, ‘The Man in Abestos’ and ‘From Gustible’s Planet’

Verdict: Buy it if you enjoy fantasy fiction