Tag Archives: alternate universe

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

After reading The Well of Lost Plots, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Something Rotten.  It surprisingly picks up two years after the previous book, with Thursday having given birth to her son, Friday, and returning to the real world.  It gets back to the main story of Thursday’s life, which, I think, is preferable to the fantastical world of unpublished books.  Something Rotten is superior, and I enjoyed it even more than The Well of Lost Plots.

Thursday returns with a guest — Hamlet, who needs some time away from his play.  Accompanied also by her son and dodos, Thursday comes back to stay with her mother.  She also finds Goliath Corporation trying to make itself a religion, a prophesy that states that if the Swindon Mallets, the local croquet team, doesn’t win its game against the Reading Whackers, the world just might end.  Thursday ends up as manager, since Goliath hires away most of the talent from the team.

Thursday takes advantage of Goliath’s religious aims, asking for an apology and the return of her husband, Landen.  They hold to their word, but he flickers in and out for a while, causing some issues with showing up at his home only to find his parents there instead, who don’t remember their son ever becoming an adult.

With all this going on, Thursday is also chasing down the minotaur that escaped from captivity in the previous book and is chasing down Yorrick Kaine, who has come to significant political power and has started a crusade against the Danes and all things Danish.  She is also being chased down by an assassin called the Windowmaker, who has close ties to one of her good friends.  A loaded plate, to say the least.

I think the best thing about this book is the balance between the crises.  I didn’t have as much of a problem following exactly what was going on in Something Rotten.  That might have something to do with the fact that I’ve actually read more of the books and plays mentioned in this volume than the others, but I also think Fforde has created a more polished book.  Friday’s escapades make more sense and the prose flows more easily.

One thing that confused me a bit was the inclusion of illustrations in the book, which seemed more heavy in the front of the book than in the back.  I suspect these might have been a holdover from the hardcover edition, but, seeing as they weren’t in the other books in the series, it made me a little perplexed.  I would have preferred them be left out; I think that, unless it’s a children’s book or a nonfiction book that needs figures, illustrations aren’t really necessary.

Overall, I really enjoyed Something Rotten.  I found it more clever than The Well of Lost Plots, which is a pretty difficult feat, and I was completely engaged in the narrative.  I can’t wait to get into the next book in the series, to find out what next happens to Ms. Thursday Next.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

I have to admit, I’m a little rusty on my Thursday Next.  The last time I read one of the books, it was in 2006, and The Well of Lost Plots was just coming out as a hardcover.  Now, here I am, five years later, and I’m having to do some catching up.  It’s well worth it, though, for the world of Thursday Next is one richly filled with all sorts of literary delights.

We start off pretty close to where Lost in a Good Book leaves off.  Thursday is hiding within the Well of Lost Plots to protect her unborn child, the product of a marriage to a man who never existed.  She finds a place to stay within an unpublished mystery novel, taking the place of one of the secondary characters.  The book is not doing well, and Thursday tries to provide a little help before it gets pulled apart for its words.

Thursday is also being trained, by Miss Havisham, to become a literary enforcement agent.  She goes through some pretty grueling training, which can also be amusing — Miss Havisham leads a group therapy session for the characters from Wuthering Heights, which Thursday tags along to.  We then get to see what happens in between the pages, which, for Wuthering Heights, basically means that everyone spends their time hating Heathcliff.

Here is one of the great things about the Thursday Next series:  it’s for people who love to read.  Not just love to read, but love to read novels.  Not just love to read novels, but love to read those books that are considered great literature.  Fforde takes the characters from big books, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and puts his own take on what their personalities are into his versions of them.  It’s really nice … for those of us who have read the books he’s referencing.

This is, thus, one of the biggest downfalls of Fforde’s books, too — you have to be a complete book nerd to get every little thing he puts in.  Otherwise, the only things you’re going to understand are the puns, and that’s no way to go through a book.  A person’s literary well-being can’t be sustained on puns alone.

Fforde does have a very lovable writing style.  His inner circle of characters are pretty well-rounded, and I enjoy the world he has created where foundering books are in a well far below the library of all fiction created (at least, in English).  I think that many well-exposed readers would really enjoy the Thursday Next series; if one doesn’t, I think The Well of Lost Plots has very limited appeal.  Maybe, though, it’s an incentive to read books that are over ten years old — I know I haven’t read Wuthering Heights, and I think maybe it’s about time I do.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective.  I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series.  The first one was too good.  This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.

The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang.  Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father.  On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner.  Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.

It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra.  The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze.  Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust.  Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.

Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze.  There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults.  Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness.  Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.

Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer.  It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will.  One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.

Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives.  The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun.  On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.

We also get more theology mixed in here.  There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father.  Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways.  We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.

And, of course, there’s the knife itself.  Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters.  What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.

The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building.  I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up.  I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing.  Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Three Hears and Three Lions surprised me when it came in to my local library through MeLCat.  Huh, I thought.  This is short. Despite being under two hundred pages, however, Poul Anderson’s first book about Holger Carlsen packs in a good story about both universe travel and traditional medieval European lore.

Our hero, Holger Carlsen, an engineer in World War II-era America and, later, Europe, finds himself back in his homeland of Denmark, assisting the resistance force there.  While trying to get an important scientist to Sweden, Holger finds himself in a shootout with Nazis and passes out.  He awakes to find he’s naked in a forest.  Nearby is a horse, clothing, and gear that suits him perfectly.  How he got there, he has no idea, but it soon is obvious that he’s not in Denmark anymore.

In trying to find out where and when he is, Holger gathers to him a dwarf, a woman who can transform herself into a swan, and a mysterious Saracen who has been seeking him out.  Together, they venture to fight the forces of Chaos and further the goals of Law.

I found this book fairly entertaining.  First of all, Holger’s body knows his life and his training; it’s his mind that gets in the way of him doing things with graceful skill.  The message that you can think yourself out of the knowledge you already possess is a good one, and I think it’s pretty true.  A lot of times, when I’m answering questions at work, it’s not until after the exchange has ended that the best answer comes to me — and then I have to chase the other person down and give them that information.  Learning to trust oneself to do the right thing, if you know you have a firm grip on reality and usually do the right thing, is a great lesson.

Secondly, there were a couple of subplots and small events that were also entertaining.  At one point, one town was suffering from a werewolf attack, which our heroes helped out with.  Not only did it add a little action, but it also filled in some knowledge about magic in this new world that would have otherwise gone unknown.  It helped explain some future events, and why they happened the way they did.

The third thing I thought was nice about this book was how it was solely from Holger’s point of view.  There are several reasons why this is great.  The first is that, sometimes, jumping between characters is annoying.  The second is that it allows us to only see what Holger sees.  While one can sometimes see the action he should take, there are some situations where what he should do — or even what is going on — is obscured.  For example, his swan-maiden friend, Alianora, who is also his love interest, shows some response when Carahue, the Saracen, flirts with her.  Holger, seeing only that a woman he loves might be falling for another man, is distraught.  Only in the end is he clued in to why Alianora acted the way she did.

Also awesome was the flip from a world where science is dominant to one where magic is dominant.  Holger’s knowledge of basic scientific principles save the adventurers several times.  Moreover, the actions he takes that have a scientific basis are seen as miraculous by the people of this other world.  I thought it was a tastefully-done exploration on how two cultures can see both see one another as wondrous.

The only thing that I have a quarrel with is the speech of Hugi, the dwarf, and Alianora, as well as some supporting characters.  It is colloquial.  While I understood most of it, I wasn’t quite sure what type of accent they were meant to have, and so some word spellings were lost on me, and I couldn’t figure them out.  I might spend a bit of time on piecing together something if I have a linguistic interest in it, I don’t want to have to do it in a piece of fiction I read for enjoyment.  I want the characters to be understandable.

Despite the occasional linguistic confusion, I enjoyed Three Hearts and Three Lions.  It’s cute, it’s action-packed, and it’d be a good read for anyone who likes The Chronicles of Prydain.  Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

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