Overall I enjoyed this book but a felt it needed more work and didn’t reach its full potential.
The book is about some fictional London riots, it is inspired by the real riots in 2011. We follow a cast of characters involved in various ways: a family who live on the estate at the heart of the riots, the chief of police, the ambitious Home Secretary and his scheming entourage.
Some of the characters are more engaging and convincing than others. My favourite was Peter, the Home Secretary, had the whole book been about him and his plotting for power I think I would have enjoyed it much more. The least convincing I found was Cathy, who lived on the Lovelace estate with her teenage daughter. Her character felt very two dimensional and also not very entertaining, I mean you could say that a scheming politician is a two dimensional cliché – but at least they are fun to read! Cathy is a sort of dull too-good-to-be-true do-gooder, she cares deeply about her community but seems like an outsider too, no real explanation is given as to why she is living in relative squalor on a estate that is about to be demolished. The book doesn’t tell us her background but she doesn’t seem to originate from that estate which makes you ask “how did she end up there?” It was interesting that I had a chance to go to an event where Gillian Slovo was talking about her work, one of the audience asked her what Cathy does for a living (the book mentions her coming and going from work) and Gillian said that she didn’t know, she hadn’t given her fictional character a job. Now I think some novels go into too much detail about each character, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination, so I don’t think we have to know every detail – but I think the author should know! Perhaps because Gillian’s past work has often involved adapting other people’s words for the stage she hasn’t gotten into the habit of creating her own characters in detail, she says she doesn’t work that way – but I think she should try it, the novel was weaker because some of the characters felt half formed.
Apart from following Peter’s sordid tale my other favourite part of the novel was the build up to the riot. It occurred during a boiling hot early summer and you can almost feel the heat coming off the pages as you read. Slovo skilfully captures a tense overheated atmosphere of something about to erupt. Unfortunately the scenes describing the actual riot didn’t live up to the early promise as they felt flat and unconvincing to me, I tried to picture what she was describing (considering I’ve never been in a riot of any kind!) but nothing realistic came into my mind – was this down to bad writing or my lack of imagination? Not sure.
I felt the novel could have scored an extra point if it had just had another thorough edit or two.
Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title. Hope you are planning to read it next month! It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).
The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth! Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.
The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation. Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.
Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno
Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas. While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in. After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.
Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford. Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task! He accepts with some reservations.
So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins! He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background. Hated by others because he has been excommunicated. People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner. He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style. He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft. He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance. As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!
There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!
I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
I do definitely think it is worth a read. The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting. I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better! But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on. In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).
Next month Brent Libraries are joining in with a fantastic scheme to encourage reading called Cityread London. Have you heard of it? It’s been running for a few years now and is basically like an absolutely massive book group. Everyone in the city is encouraged to read the same book in the month of April and discuss it, attend related events etc. You can read more about it on the Cityread London website.
This year’s chosen books is Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch which is described as ‘urban fantasy’, we started telling our library users about this book but many of them asked “What’s Urban Fantasy?” – and we found we weren’t sure how to define it! Luckily for us Paulo who works in Lewisham Libraries, who are also part of the scheme, has provided a wonderfully comprehensive definition. And here it is…
“Since ancient times, the supernatural has captivated storytellers and their audiences. Some of the earliest surviving literary forms—myths and folktales—feature such preternatural beings as wizards, ghosts, fairies, or vampires living among humans. Today, this fascination exists in the current boom in urban fantasy, a genre defined as texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.
Urban fantasy’s roots date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when readers were introduced to the possibility of supernatural, fantastic beings in modern settings, and later authors contributed to the development of what is now identified as “traditional urban fantasy”.
Urban fantasy describes a work that is set primarily in the real world and contains aspects of fantasy. These matters may involve the arrivals of alien races, the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence between humans and paranormal beings, conflicts between humans and malicious paranormals, and subsequent changes to city management. The protagonists are often under a responsibility or in a position to help others survive or get justice from a world even more bizarre than our own.
Many urban fantasy novels geared toward adults are told via a first-person narrative, and often feature supernatural beings, protagonists who are involved in law enforcement or vigilantism. There has always been a strong noir element to adult urban fantasy, as there is often an underlying mystery to be solved in the books, even if the protagonist is not technically on the side of the police. The characters’ struggles to manage both the extraordinary and mundane sides of their lives tend to be difficult, especially when family or romance is involved, drawing a parallel with the general difficulties of adult life.
On the other hand, teen urban fantasy novels often follow inexperienced protagonists who are unexpectedly drawn into paranormal struggles. Amidst these conflicts, characters often gain allies, find romance, and, in some cases, develop or discover supernatural abilities of their own. A common thread running through almost all teen urban fantasy is that as well as dealing with the fantasy element, they’re also coming into their own and learning who they are. These coming-of-age themes and a teen ‘voice’ are what distinguish young adult urban fantasy from adult books in the genre.”
So there you are – thanks Paulo!
Please join in with Cityread by reading the book this April. You can also meet the author at Kilburn Library on 20th April – please see our website for details of this and other Cityread events.