Tuesday, November 17, 2009

“Triumff”, by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot Books)


It’s Abnett, sire, just not how we know him…

Sir Rupert Triumff: Adventurer, fighter, drinker, successful ladies-man. Could he also be the saviour of the Unity?

Triumff is a tongue-in-cheek historical fantasy set in a clockwork-powered version of our present day, predominantly in London, only things are very different indeed. Currently ruled by Queen Elizabeth XXX, the sun has never set on the Elizabethan Age. After the Re-Awakening, magic is accepted as real, with the Church having moved to control it (naturally). Her Divine Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX rules over the Anglo-Hispanic Unity, a huge empire that has progressed little technologically – the magic has, effectively, taken the place of electricity and other technological advances. While the plebs might be happy to just live their lives, political intrigue, subterfuge, and backstabbing are rife in the upper echelons of society. Factions vie for ever-more control, power, and, of course, wealth. Even Triumff isn’t without a Ploy up his sleeve. As Triumff’s plans and those of a shadowy cabal of elite plotters collide, the streets of London start to ring with the sounds of violence.

Triumff is an amalgam of Flashman and Blackadder, in some ways - “seafarer, Constable of the Gravesend Basin and celebrated discoverer of Australia”. He is clearly a wastrel (we first meet him in a drunken duel), with a keen sense of self-preservation (an almost uncanny luck in this department); yet also fiercely loyal to Queen and country. It is another golden age of discovery and exploration, with huge fortunes ready to be made by those brave enough to venture forth and, ultimately, lay the seeds for conquer, plunder, and exploitation. As mentioned above, Triumff discovered Australia, which he hasn’t quite ‘finished’, thereby causing a whole host of problems for men who are chomping at the bit, ready to exploit the hell out of it. As Triumff drinks and brawls his way through the pages of this book, we see some truly unique fights (Public Baths, anyone?), which Abnett has always been skilled at writing.

This is a considerable departure from Abnett’s previous output. Having been a long-time fan of his Gaunt’s Ghosts series for the Black Library, I was interested to see what he might come up with when given complete free-rein and the opportunity to spread his own novelist’s wings.

The world he has created is an interesting one, and Abnett does an excellent job of realising it on the page. His inventions and creations within the world are also pretty interesting. For example, the all-purpose Swiss-army arsenal (the “Cantripwork Couteau Suisse”), is an inspired invention which adds frequent humorous asides as Triumff attempts to select the correct weapon for the latest scrape he’s managed to get himself tangled up in.

There are certainly absurdist elements to the novel (something that usually turns me off), but they are never over-done or excessive, providing just the right amount of oddity to intrigue without alienating the reader who might not think ‘humour’ begins and ends with Douglas Adams’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Abnett’s dialogue is frequently witty, sometimes daft, with some groan-while-you-smile puns. Even if the concept might be strange, the characters are well-created and written, with each complimenting the others, as well as fulfilling their roles perfectly. (Agnew, Triumff’s man-servant, reminds me a little of Wodehouse’s Jeeves.)

A difficult book to review, but one that is very enjoyable to read (after you get used to it being very different). If I had one criticism, it would the same as my criticism of Terry Pratchett’s early novels: it’s a little too joke-/pun-heavy. The exposition is understandably high, as Abnett introduces us to his new world, but while sometimes it can slow the plot (certainly at the beginning of the novel), it helps set the context very well. The present-day allusions are well-used and add a wry element to the storytelling.

Overall, not what I expected – but in a good way. Triumff is a swashbuckling adventure, in an alternative universe, which will entertain, amuse and engage the reader. It will certainly be interesting to see where the author takes the series in the future.

If you want something a bit more fun, something that takes itself and the genre a lot less seriously, Triumff comes highly recommended.

For Fans of: Joe Abercrombie, Blackadder, Terry Pratchett, George MacDonald Fraser, Douglas Adams, Michael Rubens

Monday, November 09, 2009

“Unseen Academicals”, by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday)


Football Comes to the Discworld, and something strange is afoot…

I suppose it was inevitable, but football has finally come to the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork. This is not the old fashioned, violent, grubby, pushing-and-shoving football. No, this is a new, faster football. There are proper goals, a new football that beguilingly goes ‘gloing’ when you drop it, and soars through the air, unlike the rock-solid old type which broke feet and heads equally.

Because of an obscure, old bequest made to the Unseen University (Ankh-Morpork’s school of Wizards), the wizards must win a football match, without using any magic. Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully delegates the organisation and training of UU’s team (much like he delegates everything else) to Ponder Stibbons who holds, by his own reckoning, the majority vote on any University Council meeting he must decide to hold (simply because he fulfils so many positions within the university).

The prospect of the Big Match draws in a myriad of characters from the streets of Ankh-Morpork and also the servants quarters of the University. Trev Likely, a street urchin with a talent for kicking a tin can; Glenda, who makes lots of jolly good pies for the Wizards; Juliet, Glenda’s dim but beautiful young colleague in the Night Kitchen (with an awful, Holly Golightly accent), who might just turn out to be the greatest fashion model there has ever been. And then there is the mysterious, erudite, and eternally eloquent Mr. Nutt. No one knows much of anything about Mr. Nutt, not even himself, worryingly. All he knows is that he must attain worth, and can do pretty much anything. Then Ponder Stibbons asks him to help with the football preparations…

Unseen Academicals, the 37th Discworld novel, is a wonderful return to Unseen University. After a considerable absence, it was nice to finally be among the wizards again. The faculty continue to amuse, parodies as they are of university Dons and Fellows. Even poor Rincewind – the star of the first handful of Discworld novels, as well as others – who, as the new “Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography” has “no students and no real duties other than to stay out of trouble”. The whole cast of them remains wonderfully inept and food-obsessed. Add to this the fact that the Dean has moved on to head a rival university, and tensions (not to mention Ridcully’s blood-pressure) are high. I was disappointed that they seemed to fade a bit out of the story in the second half, though.

The cast below-decks – Trev, Glenda, Juliet, and Mr. Nutt – provide a different approach to Unseen University, as we are given a glimpse into how things actually work, and what sort of people keep the place running. Each character is different and very well rounded. Nutt, especially, is one of the best additions to the Discworld in a long time (though, Moist Von Lipwig is pretty great, too).

I laughed a lot more while reading Unseen Academicals than I remember with some of the more recent Discworld novels. However, the plot didn’t seem as gripping as some of his previous Discworld outings. There’s a lot going on, for sure, but the story doesn’t move along at the sort of pace we’ve become used to with Pratchett’s writing. This might have something to do with the increased frequency with which we switch between perspectives, and the number of people’s eyes we see through. The characters remain intriguing and interesting – the Patrician and Librarian remaining two of the best characters ever created, by anyone. The dialogue is sharp and amusing throughout (his social commentary, certainly with regards to football fans, remains very keen also), filled with clever allusions and puns that will make you chuckle knowingly.

All in all, not one of the best Discworld novels, but Pratchett remains a superior author even with his ‘off’ days. Unseen Academicals will entertain you throughout – and that’s all we can ask from one of the UK’s greatest living writers.

Highly recommended.