26 January 2011

10 reasons why the Watch books are not like JK Rowling

The Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko (The Night Watch, The Day Watch, The Twilight Watch & The Last Watch) is an excellent fantasy series and one which I recommend to anyone who like complex, exciting stories and new/different settings. The 2 films based on the the first two books are also good, with plenty of action, although they differ from the novels.

Here is the cover of the second book. It is an excellent example of the bollocks that gets written on book covers. The quote in the bottom left-hand corner seems to suggest that this book (and the 2 sequels, which have the same cover quote) is like the work of JK Rowling, except that it is Russian. It is a grossly misleading and unhelpful quote. These books are very different to Rowling's and while it's possible to enjoy the work of both authors I wouldn't recommend them to the same people. For example I wouldn't recommend Rowling to someone who enjoys dark fantasy, horror or thrillers, just as I wouldn't recommend Lukyanenko to a nine year old. Plus it's somewhat infuriating, as a fantasy fan, to see that apparently the entire genre can be summed up as 'like JK Rowling'.

10 commonly-known facts about the Harry Potter books and comparative facts about the Watch series:

The protagonist is a teenage wizard.
The main protagonist is an adult magician. The 2nd book features different protagonists, they are also adults, one is female.
The books are mostly set in a magical school, the entirety takes place in Britain.
Set in Moscow mostly, also Prague, Uzbekistan and Edinburgh. The closest thing to a school is a youth camp which is the setting for less than 9% of the series.
Most of the characters are children, the main adults are parents/guardians or teachers.
Almost all the characters are adults, some centuries old. There are 2 main teenage/young adult characters, and a toddler.
Magic exists but is practised in secret.

Ok yes that’s broadly the same, but it’s also true of dozens of things.*
Performing magic requires wand-waving, pseudo-Latin spells, potions, charms and magical artefacts.

Others perform magic as an act of will, usually without accoutrements. Although training improves their abilities, Others’ are limited by their magical ‘race’. Magic can involve formal processes and rituals. There are some magical artefacts.
Witches and Wizards fly around on broomsticks and owls deliver their post.

I’m almost certain there aren't any flying broomsticks in the books. One character does spend time in owl form, but I don’t think she delivers anything.
There are magical creatures including: centaurs, dragons, hippogriffs, giants, three-headed dogs and werewolves.

Some magical creatures (vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, incubi/succubi) are actually different races of Others. There are a few creatures created by magicians, but there don’t seem to be any independent, non-humanoid magical creatures.
The main antagonist is a Great Evil who must be stopped at all costs.

There are Light Others (who tend to be selfless) and Dark Others (who tend to be self-serving), opposing sides that cannot win without wiping themselves out. Peace and balance are the most important things and they are maintained by the Watches and the Inquisition. Each side has their own opinions and philosophies which are explored in the books. On the surface the concept seems black and white, but there is a hell of a lot of grey (see next point).
A character who doesn’t like the hero and pretends to work for the bad-guys, whilst actually working for the good-guys is as morally grey and complex as it gets.
The Night Watch (Light Others who police Dark ones) track down Dark forces, they also issue them with licences. A licensed vampire can freely drink human blood. The Day Watch (Dark Others who police Light ones) have the same rights and responsibilities, and can legally stop an unlicensed Light magician from using magic to positively influence humans.
Add to this that the Watch Directors use humans, Others and even their own Watch members as pawns in their plans –which frequently to involve deceit, misdirection and manipulation – and you have stories with complex moral greys.
After hardships and loss Good triumphs over Evil.

After some very serious challenges to the order of things, to magic and life itself,  the status quo and balance are preserved, meaning that humans and Others can continue existing. Although the Night Watch (in Russia at least) is left stronger than the Day Watch.

There you go 10 reasons and I didn't even include the obvious bit about one being an adult book and one being written for children.

* Admittedly it's more like 9 reasons why the Watch books aren't like JK Rowling. But pretty much every low, contemporary or historical primary-world fantasy has magic existing secretly among us.
You might as well say that Terry Brooks' Word & Void trilogy is 'JK Rowling, American style', or that Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series is 'JK Rowling, Irish style', or perhaps that Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is 'JK Rowling, British Jewish London style'. In fact I'm fairly sure that both Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence and Jill Murphy's Worst Witch series are 'JK Rowling, preceding-her-by-2-decades style'.
And you know what, I think all the above books have more in common with JK Rowling than the Watch series does.

22 January 2011


I'm going to talk about the work of 2 women. They share a surname but as far as I know they aren't related -though it might be cool if they were (actually it'd be cooler if they teamed up somehow, relatives or not).

Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton is Canadian web-comic-maker (web-comicer? web-comictress? web-comictrix?) who is interested in history, just about ALL history. This in itself is impressive. The fact that she turns history, personal experience, pop-culture musings, nostalgia and vintage book covers into hilarious web comics is pretty bloody amazing. Thanks to Kate Beaton's line drawings I have giggled, laughed aloud, smiled and also learned some stuff.

Her website is called Hark! A Vagrant
She also has a blog at Livejournal
Some of my favourite comics:
Herodotus the Father of Lies - because let's face it writing about flying snakes, griffins and how to steal gold from giant ants is fun, but not historical.*
Sexy Tudors - because (if you believe television) history was very glamorous and sexy, and not at all full of dirt and disease. *nods*
Mystery Solving Teens - why did everyone believe those strange, hippy-van-driving kids over local adults?

Clare Beaton
Elusive Moose published by Barefoot Books
Clare Beaton is a British artist and illustrator who works mostly with felt. Her work is AMAZING! She has done a variety of things but I'm most fam,iliar with her work for Barefoot Books. These are very simple picture books that teach children about different animals and environments, but the pictures are so delightful and well done I find myself sitting and studying them.

The first Clare Beaton book I read was Elusive Moose. The eponymous moose wasn't blue, but the pictures and artwork were fantastic.
Further titles include Hidden Hippo, Secret Seahorse, Who are you, Baby Kangaroo? and One Moose and Twenty Mice. The latter book title includes two of my favourite animals. Clare has also written some informative books about working with felt, they too are for children, but it was still interesting.
Her website is simple, but features more fascinating and colourful artwork.

* I don't recommend reading Herodotus unless you are inclined to read historical writings (if so give him a try), but if you can find a good summary online it should be amusing.

17 January 2011

More Tales of the City

After reading the first book in this series I thought I'd give the others a go, over time. Then I saw the television version -which helped me understand the book better- and prematurely discovered one character's secret. This meant, as I said in my post on 13th December, I had to read the next one. And now I have.

More Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
I read this book very quickly. It isn't large and has fairly short chapters, plus the writing contains very little filler and is somehow conducive to quick reading. However the main reason I read the book so quickly, at times ignoring piles of comics to keep reading, is that it was just so compelling.

The story starts a couple of months after the end of the first book. The cast returns, and some new characters are introduced. Again I found that some of the US 70s references went over my head, but I think I'd picked up a reasonable amount from the previous book. Plus the writing is such that the tone of dialogue perfectly is clear even if the specific reference isn't familiar. At least I've heard of Candace Bergen and Eva Gabor, even if my idea of them is several decades ahead of that in the book. Given my lack of interest in celebrity culture I might be equally clueless reading a modern novel with too many contemporary references.*

Knowing part of the plot actually wasn't a problem. The reveal comes fairly early on, and knowing about it meant that I could see how the author built up certain situations and I could anticipate what would happen. If timed well anticipation of upcoming scenes or situations can be a powerful thing in a book, it's how a book retains its re-read value.
There were other mysterious plot elements. Most prominent was the one surrounding the missing memories of an amnesiac character, which led to some self-conscious, amateur detective work by some of the returning characters. There were also several fairly dramatic events, which I won't spoil, but which tugged at the emotions.

There didn't seem to be as many loose ends at the end of this book. I'm not sure how closely the next one will follow on, but as long as the characters and the writing remain at the same standard I'll be happy to read.

* Many adverts have 'famous' people in them, but half the time I assume they're ad actors because I don't recognise them. That group of mates playing together on the Wii ad, turns out they're a band! I also forget that a lot of music in adverts comes from popular songs, so then I get confused when I hear 'that ASDA song' playing on a pub jukebox.

15 January 2011

The King's Speech

I'm back. My laptop has a new power supply and I don't have to use my husband's computer anymore.

My first cinema outing of the new year was to see The King's Speech, which has won/been nominated for various awards, and which I've been looking forward to since before Christmas.

I am interested in history, this is no surprise to anyone who knows me. I've enjoyed studying all sorts of different historical periods, but by the time I was 16 I'd decided I wasn't that interested in modern history. Because modern history -as taught to me in both History and English lessons- was mostly World Wars. However over the last few years I've developed a growing interest in the bits of twentieth century history that aren't 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. In a way Downton Abbey and The King's Speech came along at just the right time for me.

The film was excellent. The look, the feel, the acting, the emotions, it all just worked.

I've always quite liked the quirkiness of Helena Bonham Carter and the characters she has played. Yet here she was returning to period-drama, which defined her early career. Instead of playing a waif or ingenue, or a quirky gothic type she played a woman who was at the very heart of the British upper-class/royal establishment. She was excellent. She really captured the polite iciness of Elizabeth towards Wallis Simpson.

Colin Firth was brilliant as well, something which came as a pleasant surprise. I tend to think of him as a romantic lead, with the exception of Shakespeare in Love, so I was interested to see what he would be like with such a strong character role. He was wonderful. Bertie (King George VI) was a challenging part and he really rose to the occasion. Going from a loving father, to a frustrated stammerer, to a formal prince and later reluctant king, Firth -well directed with a wonderful script- showed different facets of the man who never wanted to be king. The voice was obviously a major part of his performance, and Firth made those stutters and stammers feel real, as well as doing a good imitation of the posh but somehow small voice of the prince. It was interesting to see him play a character who was so lacking in charisma, but he always kept dignity in the role and never became ridiculous or bumbling.

Geoffrey Rush was excellent, but then I generally expect Geoffrey Rush to be excellent. He was excellent even in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 when he'd been given lines that didn't make any sense. So seeing him working with such a good script is a real treat.

I'd also like to take a moment to mention Timothy Spall in a supporting role playing Winston Churchill. Now Spall is an actor who has played a variety of parts, many of them comedic, some of them grotesque. However I've often felt that, though he's not a big name, he must be a good actor. Seeing him as Churchill (pre-WWII MP and newly-made Lord of the Admiralty Churchill) just felt like a good piece of the casting. In fact I'd quite like to see him play Churchill again. If any TV or film people could arrange it that'd be just lovely.

I knew various bits and pieces about the abdication, about Edward VIII's love for Wallis Simpson, about the horror the British establishment felt about the whole situation. I knew that the Queen Mother had never liked Mrs Simpson back when she was still the Duchess of York, and that when she was Queen she referred to her as "that woman". Then again apparently Wallis Simpson referred to her sister-in-law, the Queen of England, as "Cookie". Clearly these were two women who were never going to get along.
It was a constitutional crisis, the first one since the madness of George III. Personally I think the constitutional crises -historical ones at least- are interesting, which is probably why I love Stuart History so much.

I heartily recommend this film to anyone who enjoys drama and strong character-based story-telling.