Terry Pratchett – Guards! Guards!

This was my first re-reads in a long, long time. I do have an accumulating pile of books that I desperately want to read again but you know how it is. So many new and shiny books come out every month that the old favorites get forgotten. To be fair, I read Guards! Guards! when I was about sixteen and didn’t remember a lot of it. This time, to change things up a bit, I didn’t read my old paperback copy but listened to the audiobook instead. As always, Nigel Planer does a fantastic job of bringing Pratchett’s characters to life.

guards guardsGUARDS! GUARDS!
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Random House, 1990 (1989)
Paperback: 317 pages
Series: Discworld #8
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: This is where the dragons went.

Here there be dragons . . . and the denizens of Ankh-Morpork wish one huge firebreather would return from whence it came. Long believed extinct, a superb specimen of draco nobilis (“noble dragon” for those who don’t understand italics) has appeared in Discworld’s greatest city. Not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling everything in its path, in rather short order it is crowned King (it is a noble dragon, after all . . .).

Meanwhile, back at Unseen University, an ancient and long-forgotten volume–The Summoning of Dragons–is missing from the Library’s shelves. To the rescue come Captain Vimes, Constable Carrot, and the rest of the Night Watch who, along with other brave citizens, risk everything, including a good roasting, to dethrone the flying monarch and restore order to Ankh-Morpork (before it’s burned to a crisp). A rare tale, well done as only Terry Pratchett can.

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Guards! Guards!
is the first novel in the Night Watch sub-series of Discworld. If you’re new to thsi universe, this is a great starting point. It introduces Captain Vimes, a mostly drunk and depressed man who doesn’t really see much point in his job anymore, as well as his companions with all their quirks and eccentricities. Carrott is probably one of the most adorably pure-hearted characters I’ve ever read about and while I have a soft spot in my heart for grumpy old Vimes, Carrott is the anchor that helps the Watch remember why they exist.

Terry Pratchett often said that this was meant to be a book about Carrott, but Vimes just took over. It’s easy to see how. He is not exactly an anti-hero – he does want to do the right thing, he just doesn’t have the gumption. The dynamic between Vimes, Carrott, Sergeant Colon and “Nobby” Nobs is great fun to read and some of their dialogue made me laugh out loud.

As I’ve said many times before, it is wonderful to see how Terry Pratchett evolved as a writer, how his stories become better and better. Seeing as this is only the eight Discworld novel, you now probably expect me to say it lacks craft. It really doesn’t. Sure, Sir Terry’s newer work is snappier and better structured but Guards! Guards! still manages to juggle a mystery plot with several view points and keep it interesting. Whenever you’re not guessing who is behind the conspiracy to call a dragon in order to lure out the king of Ankh-Morpork, you can just enjoy the hilarious banter or Vimes’ amazing character development. And Errol, of course. That little swamp dragon stole my heart in no time, and him eating a tea kettle was just the cherry on top.

I am and will probably always be a Witch girl at heart. But the Night Watch show us a different aspect of Discworld. Their story lines give us police procedurals set in the capital. Politics, intrigue, the Patrician’s cleverness, crazy bar brawls and all. What’s not to love? Did I miss Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg? Sure! But Vimes’ story is interesting in that his personal life developes, as well as his character. While Granny will probably remain a virgin forever, Vimes may have family life ahead of him, and the same goes for Carrott, who is still young and – although raised by dwarves and believing himself to be one (a six foot tall specimen…) – discovering that the big city has a lot to offer.

I felt that this was very much a novel setting up a place and characters for future stories. It wasn’t my favorite Discworld novel but I loved it in that it offers so many possibilities for the ones that come after. And even though I’m tickled to start reading Death’s storyline, I will probably jump straight into another Watch adventure after this.

MY RATING:  7/10  –  Very good

divider1The City Watch novels (Discworld):

  1. Guards! Guards!
  2. Men at Arms
  3. Feet of Clay
  4. Jingo
  5. The Fifth Elephant
  6. Night Watch
  7. Thud!
  8. Snuff

guards guards cover art

Terry Pratchett – The Last Hero (illustrated)

The nice thing about staying in a holiday apartment that is owned by English people is you find tons of books lying around. In my case, the bright cover of an illustrated Terry Pratchett novel jumped into view on day one and was read immediately. I have half a mind to buy some other of the fully illustrated Discworld books – it really made the experience even more bizarrely fun.

last hero illustratedTHE LAST HERO
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2001
Illustrated by: Paul Kidby
ISBN: 9780060507770
Paperback: 176 pages
Series: Discworld #27

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The place where the story happened was a world on the back of four elephants perched on the shell of a giant turtle.

Cohen the Barbarian. He’s been a legend in his own lifetime.
He can remember the good old days of high adventure, when being a Hero meant one didn’t have to worry about aching backs and lawyers and civilization. But these days, he can’t always remember just where he put his teeth…So now, with his ancient (yet still trusty) sword and new walking stick in hand, Cohen gathers a group of his old — very old — friends to embark on one final quest. He’s going to climb the highest mountain of Discworld and meet the gods.It’s time the Last Hero in the world returns what the first hero stole. Trouble is, that’ll mean the end of the world, if no one stops him in time.

dividerThe end of Discworld is near and the only people who can save the world are well-known – although not necessarily for their heroism or use. When Lord Vetinari finds out that Cohen the Barbarian and his aged gang are planning to give fire back to the gods, thus destroying the entire world, he goes to Leonard of Quirm for help. The crazy inventor and genius comes up with a plan that involves heavy machinery powered by dragons and a circumnavigation of Discworld… under the elephants, that is.

discworld deathLeonard of Quirm, being the daVinci of Discworld, lends himself wonderfully to this illustrated novel. And I must begin with the illustrations. With a mere 176 pages, the pictures did as much to bring the story to life as did the words. Anybody who’s had one of the newer Discworld novels in their hands is familiar with Paul Kidby’s strange yet realistic style (not to be confused with the even stranger Josh Kirby who did the covers for most of the older novels). These pages are filled to the brim with images, even on pages without character sketches, dragons, or the truly funky ship Quirm builds, the background offers a little eye candy. All the pages are sepia colored, making them look a little like vellum. There are sketches in the background (and yes, sometimes that was annoying when I was trying to make out the print), anatomy studies of dragons, and – my favorite – the Vitruvian Man featuring a bewildered Rincewind.

Oh yes, did I mention that? Leonard of Quirm’s ship only holds three passengers which are duly selected by Lord Vetinari. Captain Carrot, as a volunteer, is an obvious recruit. Rincewind kind of volunteers because he knows he’s going to end up on this deadly mission anyway. And let’s just say, the trip holds more than one surprise in store.

carrot leonard rincewindIt took me a while to warm to Pratchett’s humor, or rather I never really liked the earlier Discworld novels. With The Last Hero I found myself chuckling on every page and reading random passages to my boyfriend out loud because they wanted to be shared and laughed about. What I enjoyed was the range of humor. You get silly one-liners, clever wordplay, and most of all jibes at the job of being a Hero. This is Discworld doing what it does best, subverting the fantasy genre by turning it on its head, laughing at it, and sometimes just rolling with it because, hey, we all love the genre with all its tropes and bumps and problems.

On 176 (large format) pages, Pratchett managed to tell an adventure story, first and foremost. But especially the storyline about Cohen the Barbarian and his gang, all old men by now, wearing the gear and garments of their younger selves (which makes for hilarious images, as you can imagine), talk about what being a hero means. After they got everything they ever wanted, ended up rich, with families and comfortable lives to lead, there is still something missing. It was these scenes that gave the book a nice balance between silly and serious, and it is for this balance that I have come to love Discworld to death. Speaking of which – of course he makes an appearance, in text as well as art.

There wasn’t a single page I didn’t thoroughly enjoy and even though Rincewind and Captain Carrot are well-known characters with their own sub-series, I would say this is a good novel to start if you haven’t read any Discworld yet. Even if you don’t like the story as such, just the description of the dragon species are worth the read.

THE GOOD: Hilarious fun, fantastic illustrations that make up almost half of the book, a story that is both funny and deep.
THE BAD: While I consider it a good starter novel, if you don’t know any of the characters, some jokes will be lost on you. Side characters don’t get a lot of personality because, on less than 200 pages, there simply is no time.
THE VERDICT: A highly recommended Discworld novel, especially the illustrated edition. After this, I kind of never want to read a text-only Pratchett again.

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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The Discworld Series:

  1. The Colour of Magic
  2. The Light Fantasticcohen
  3. Equal Rites
  4. Mort
  5. Sourcery
  6. Wyrd Sisters
  7. Pyramids
  8. Guards! Guards!
  9. Eric
  10. Moving Pictures
  11. Reaper Man
  12. Witches Abroad
  13. Small Gods
  14. Lords and Ladies
  15. Men at Arms
  16. Soul Music
  17. Interesting Times
  18. Maskerade
  19. Feet of Clay
  20. Hogfather
  21. Jingo
  22. The Last Continent
  23. Carpe Jugulum
  24. The Fifth Elephant
  25. The Truth
  26. Thief of Time
  27. The Last Hero
  28. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
  29. Night Watch
  30. The Wee Free Men
  31. Monstrous Regiment
  32. A Hat Full of Sky
  33. Going Postal
  34. Thud!
  35. Wintersmith
  36. Making Money
  37. Unseen Academicals
  38. I Shall Wear Midnight
  39. Snuff

Review: Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett – Havemercy

What an unexpected pleasure. This book was completely – and I mean completely – different from what I expected. It’s not really steampunk despite that awesome dragon on the cover, it’s not quite epic fantasy, it’s not too heroic, and there’s very little action altogether. However, it turned out to be a brilliant fantasy of manners, a beautiful romance, and a very original take on dragons.

havemercyHAVEMERCY

by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett

Published by: Spectra, 2008
ISBN: 9780553905250
ebook: 448 pages
Series: Metal Dragons #1

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: That morning, I awaited my arrest in Our Lady of a Thousand Fans.

Thanks to its elite Dragon Corps, the capital city of Volstov has all but won the hundred years’ war with its neighboring enemy, the Ke-Han. The renegade airmen who fly the corps’s mechanical, magic-fueled dragons are Volstov’s greatest weapon. But now one of its members is at the center of a scandal that may turn the tide of victory. To counter the threat, four ill-assorted heroes must converge to save their kingdom: an exiled magician, a naive country boy, a young student – and the unpredictable ace who flies the city’s fiercest dragon, Havemercy. But on the eve of battle, these courageous men will face something that could make the most formidable of warriors hesitate, the most powerful of magicians weak, and the most unlikely of men allies in their quest to rise against it.

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Gorgeous as it may be, the clockwork dragon on the cover is severly misleading. This story may feature dragons, but they are very much in the background. Instead, the plot revolves around the fate of four viewpoint characters. The exiled magician Royston and the country boy he meets there, a boy named Hal, were my first favorite characters. The way Hal, a tutor to Royston’s nephews and niece, hungers for knowledge and yearns for Royston’s stories from the bustling city of Volstov was more fascinating than any action scene could have been. Our other two viewpoint characters reside in the capital. Thom is a scholar with the unhappy task of rehabilitating the Dragon Corps. The Corps’ most fearsome rider, Rook, has been involved in a  rather large scandal and is not deemed fit to mingle with society. Thom more than struggles trying to get some manners into the impulsive Rook. In the beginning, Rook was my least favorite character, I almost loathed him. It goes to show the writers’ talent that by the end, I came to think of him as a dear friend. After a while, I couldn’t even decide which storyline was my favorite. But Rook and Thom surely made for the most exciting bantering and psychological warfare. Each character is multi-layered and so intricate that I didn’t even care about the side characters, most of whom were left rather flat.

The blurb implies epic battles and a raging war. The war exists, although when we enter the story, it is almost over. Epic battles will not be found within these pages. Instead, we get character studies, amazing relationships and a surprisingly wonderful romance. Discovering who these people are was enough for me but if you’re looking for Epic epic, you won’t find it here. The plot is slow-moving but never boring. Every page offers new tidbits about what made the characters who they are today. They are each thrown into new situations without knowing how to handle them.

havemercy dragon

With magicians and flying clockwork dragons, this book has one foot firmly set in the realms of fantasy. Same as the characters, the world-building takes time to unfold. But the closer I got to the end of the book, the more I realised that the city of Volstov, its politics and its magicians, were quite well fleshed-out and I had no trouble finding my way around this place, understanding the slang and suspending my disbelief. Everything in this book is subtly done (except maybe Rook, but then he is not meant to be subtle). I read along, quite happy to follow these characters around for no better reason than to get to know them better. Towards the end of the book, a sort of mystery comes up that needs urgent solving and brings us some of the action the blurb promises. It wouldn’t even have been necessary but it added a little extra something to an already thrilling book. This is not your avarage fantasy novel. If I had to compare it, I would say it reminds me a little bit of Ellen Kushner’s At Swordspoint. Except this is better.

The one qualm I have about this – and it’s not really a big problem – is that there isn’t a single important female character. The number of women in the entire book can be counted on my hands. A few of them get to say a line or two but women really don’t seem to feature much in this world. That’s okay, not every book has to have strong female characters, but it seemed strange that the only women mentioned were either prostitutes or an important man’s wife. There are two female magicians that I can mention as somewhat redeeming but altogether, this is very much a man’s world.

An original fantasy of manners that didn’t thrill me right at the beginning. But at some point, and I believe it was when Hal first meets Royston, authors Jones and Bennett set their mechanical dragon’s claws into my brain and I was absolutely hooked. It may not be steampunk but it’s sure worth reading.

THE GOOD: Wonderfully layered characters, relationships and character development. A world that is both subtle and intriguing. Plus, a gay romance that will give you butterflies (no matter your sexual orientation).
THE BAD: The beginning is very confusing and takes some pulling through. There’s an abominable lack of women characters!
THE VERDICT: An original fantasy of manners that manages to be epic without shedding gallons of blood on a fictional battlefield. It focuses on characters and their personal growth. Highly recommended.

RATING:  8/10  – Excellent

dividerThe Metal Dragons/Havemercy Series:

  1. Havemercy
  2. Shadow Magic
  3. Dragon Soul
  4. Steel Hands

Second opinions:

Review: Marie Brennan – A Natural History of Dragons

Will you look at that cover! 2013 is not yet here but I am fairly certain it will remain my favorite cover of the year. The artist, Todd Lockwood, is responsible for this gorgeous image as well as the beautiful illustrations inside the book. Thankfully, the beautiful cover/bad book curse did not follow me to the end of the year and the story inside lives up to what its wrapping promises.
NOTE: I had published this review at the beginning of December already but the publisher asked me to postpone publication until closer to the book’s publication date. It’s just a little over a month now until it comes out and we can all hold that gorgeous hardcover in our greedy little hands.

Marie Brennan - A natural history of dragons

A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS
A Memoir by Lady Trent
by Marie Brennan

Published by: Tor, 5 February 2013
Illustrated by: Todd Lockwood
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3196-0
ebook (DRM-free): 336 pages
How I got it:
review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist.

THE BLURB: You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

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Isabella, Lady Trent, is recording her memoirs in this and – if her promise holds true – suceeding volumes. We enter her life as seven-year-old Isabella wants to know why all birds have wishbones, and promptly chops up a dead pigeon to find out. This charming, if very improper, little girl is easy to sympathise with and her struggles to rise above what society has planned for her sex are all too understadable. Isabella’s childhood is defined by her passion for dragons and even though her family do their very best to raise her into a proper lady, she never loses her love for dragon studies. When her husband agrees to take her on an expedition to the Vystrani mountains, Isabella will uncover far more than dragon anatomy…

© Todd Lockwood

© Todd Lockwood

Marie Brennan captured my interest with her whimsical voice. Set in Scirland (which I read as an analogue to Victorian England) and Vystrana, society forces a set of rules upon our heroine that stand in the way of what she loves. I always enjoy reading about scolars and scientists, about how they experiment and research and try to prove or disprove their own theses. And there is a good amount of studying dragons in this book. But there is also a mystery at the heart of it, conspiracies to be unraveled, and a somewhat larger-than-regular life to be lead. Isabella’s tale may not have been as adventurous and exciting as she leads us to believe in the first chapter but it was a fun journey nonetheless.

If you wish, gentle reader, you may augment your mental tableau with dramatic orchestral accompaniment. I suggest something in a minor and ominous key, as that is what went through my own head as I realized just how thoroughly I had outed myself as ink-nosed.

I felt the beginning of this book was much stronger than the time spent in Vystrana. While quick-paced, the second half of the novel could have been tightened even more. Since we spend so much time getting to know the humans Isabella meets, and rather little time interacting with actual dragons, I would have welcomed a bit more world-building. All we really learn of Dustanev, that Vystrani city, is that it’s on a mountain, that it’s cold there, and that its inhabitants speak in a Slavic sounding tongue. It was enough to build atmosphere and served for the story told here, but in order for me to understand the complexity of its politics, a little more explanation would be in order.

© Todd Lockwood

© Todd Lockwood

I cannot write a review without mentioning the stunning cover art and illustrations throughout the book, by Todd Lockwood. It fits the tone and theme of the novel perfectly, showing not only dragons in cool poses, but using a pseudo-scientific approach. The cover is by far my favorite but the illustrations inside the novel are equally as beautiful – and the reason why I will buy a hardback paper copy of this book once it’s published. A book this beautiful will make you happy just sitting on your shelf, and if your taste is anything like mine, it will make you happy reading it as well.

THE GOOD: Whimsical language, funny remarks by the narrator, and a love for science and dragons that touches the reader as much as the heroine.
THE BAD: Some pacing problems in the middle part, could have used more thorough world-building.
BONUS: Stunning illustrations that make it worth buying (even if you don’t like the story)
THE VERDICT: Recommended to people who liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the Parasol Protectorate. And dragons, of course.

MY RATING: 7/10 Very good

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natural history of dragons wallpaper

A Natural History of Dragons – art © Todd Lockwood (click for different wallpaper formats)

Catherynne M. Valente – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Was für ein Titel! Und was für eine Entdeckung! Catherynne M. Valente war mir vor diesem Buch völlig unbekannt, aber sie muss aus Magie gemacht sein. Dieses Buch ist sowohl sprachlich als auch inhaltlich ein wahrer Genuss.

  Deutscher Titel: noch nicht erschienen
  Erschienen: 10. Mai 2011
  Verlag: Feiwel & Friends
  Seiten: 247
  Illustriert von: Ana Juan
Erschienen bei: Feiwel & Friends

Meine Bewertung: 9/10

Erster Satz: Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink and yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.

September ist 12 Jahre alt und wird eines Tages von ihrem langweiligen Leben ins Fairyland entführt. Von niemand geringerem als dem Grünen Wind, der auf dem Leopard der kleinen Brise reitet. In Fairyland angekommen, möchte September zuerst bloß den Löffel einer Hexe von der neuen Marquess zurück stehlen, doch schon bald wird sie immer mehr verschlungen in das Schicksal ganz Fairylands. Mit einem Wyverary (das Kind eines Wyvern – nicht eines Drachen! – und einer Bibliothek, also library) an ihrer Seite, einer Herde wilder, fliegender Fahrräder als Transportmittel und dem Mantel des Grünen Windes, kämpft sich September durch ein großes Abenteuer.

Als großer Fan von J. M. Barries Peter and Wendy konnte mich dieses Werk schon auf der ersten Seite gefangen nehmen. Valentes Sprache erinnert einerseits an bekannte Klassiker wie Alice im Wunderland oder Peter Pan, mischt dem aber ihren ganz eigenen Stil bei. So liest sich das Buch wie ein Grimm’sches Märchen mit modernen Einflüssen und aberwitzigen und fantastischen Ideen.
Die Erzählerin bricht immer wieder die viert Wand und spricht direkt zum Leser. Sie erwähnt etwa, dass sie uns etwas verrät, dass die arme September als Heldin selbst noch lange nicht wissen kann. Ob nun einen Schritt voraus oder nicht, September ist eine durch und durch liebenswerte Protagonistin. Mit ihren 12 Jahren ist sie zwar clever, scheut aber nicht davor zurück, ihren Freund A-bis-L (der Wyverary-der-kein-Drache-ist) nach Wörtern zu fragen, die sie nicht versteht. Der Lerneffekt besteht hier nicht nur für Kinder – auch für Menschen, deren Muttersprache nicht englisch ist, haben hier einen Vorteil. So konnte auch ich mir den Umweg über’s Wörterbuch ersparen und durfte mich über die Erklärung des Wyverary freuen.

Catherynne M. Valente muss dieses Buch mit einer verzauberten Feder (oder an einem magischen PC) geschrieben haben. Denn sie verstrickt ihre Leser so geschickt in die Handlung, dass am Ende des Buches noch ein paar große Überraschungsmomente warten, und das trotz Erinnerungen an wichtige Details, die unsere Erzählerin immer wieder erwähnt.
Die witzigen Illustrationen von Ana Juan untermalen gekonnt Szenen aus der Geschicht und sind ein ein tolles Extra, vor allem wenn man dieses Buch nicht nur für sich selbst, sondern Kindern vorliest . Das wunderschön gestaltete Cover zeigt September und A-bis-L.

Das Ende ist zwar rund und in sich abgeschlossen, aber The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making ist erst der erste Teil der Fairyland-Reihe. Wieviele es geben wird, steht noch nicht fest. Eine Kurzgeschichte, die chronologisch vor Septembers Zeit spielt (The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While), kann kostenlos online auf der TOR-Verlagsseite gelesen werden.

THE GOOD: Märchenhafte Sprache, fantastisch zum Vorlesen geeignet. Spannende Handlung, liebenswerte Charaktere.
THE BAD: Anfangs etwas verwirrend (besonders für nicht ganz aufmerksame Leser)
FAZIT: Absolut empfehlenswert für Kinder und Erwachsene.

Weitere Infos finden sich auf der Homepage der Autorin.

Bewertung: 9/10
Update: Und ich freue mich, dass inzwischen Teil 2 der Reihe erschienen ist (Klick zu “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” auf Amazon) und ich mich benehme wie ein Kind im Spielzeugladen. Will haben, will haben!

Die Fairyland-Reihe:

  1. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
  2. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There