Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Reviews: Roots of Betrayal and City of Bohane

Customers are very strange. Yesterday afternoon:

Customer: I would like Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Me: That'll be downstairs in Philosophy.
Customer: Can I borrow it?
Me: We're a bookshop. All our books are only for sale.
Customer: So I can't borrow it, then?

And later:

Me: Do you need a bag for your purchase?
Other Customer: Yes, I do.
Me: Our large plastic bags are 10p.
Other Customer: That's outrageous! How dare you! Charging me to cart away your items! Disgusting.
Me: I'm very sorry, but it's company policy.
Other Customer: DISGUSTING.
Other Customer: *reaches into coat, pulls out plastic bag, puts in his purchases and storms out*
Me: I see that you really did need that bag, then.

Anyway, today I have two reviews - The Roots of Betrayal by James Forrester (who, interestingly, is actually the historian Ian Mortimer in disguise) and City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (who, if you believe the book's blurb, is James Joyce in disguise. As far as I can tell, this is not at all true.)

First, The Roots of Treason.

I picked this up off the proof pile under the mistaken belief that it would be a historical murder mystery, a bodies-in-the-privy descendant of Father Cadfael (poor old Ellis Peters, crime's Hot New Thing of the '90s, has now gone completely out of fashion and I miss her). But alas, it turned out to be historical intrigue fiction, which has never really been my thing. I find it a bit difficult to be worried about whether or not the Virgin Queen will be foully deposed by Catholic plotters when I know perfectly well that Elizabeth I reigned for 44 largely untroubled years and then died in a peaceful although black-toothed manner, entirely undeposed by plotters of any kind.

That said, if you are going to do historical intrigue, you might as well do it well, and I think James/Ian Forrester/Mortimer has done it well. In the first place, he knows the hell out of his chosen time period, and writes about it in a way that only very occasionally devolves into tiresome discussions of wood panelling techniques or the fashion in cross-stitching. There's an interview with him on Amazon where he says
'If a Catholic man walked into a tavern in 1563 and saw meat being roasted on a spit in Lent, he would be appalled--and for this not to be remarked on in a modern story would show a lack of understanding of the period on the part of the author, and thus question the author's engagement with the period',
and that's exactly the sort of subtle, delightful geekery that I approve of, and that you can see going on in a non-intrusive way, throughout the book. Also, there are fun bits with pirates, and Francis Walsingham and William Cecil have pleasingly bitchy cameos, and although the central missing document plot is fairly pointless for the reason I mentioned above, the reader does at least have a good time along the way.

However, of the last hundred pages or so, I think I fully read and took in about two of them, and that is because when I read I am an enormous wuss. Violence in films tends not to bother me, particularly, but when it's a book I find myself obsessively visualising each injury in a graphic mental catalogue until the action is totally obscured because all I can think is:

THERE is a HOLE in his HAND OH MY GOD he got STABBED through the HAND and his RIB is broken and he has NO FINGERNAILS OH GOD WHAT WOULD THAT FEEL LIKE and the person he is fighting has PART OF HIS FACE HANGING OFF, how could you POSSIBLY be able to keep fighting if you only had HALF A FACE, come to that how can he even be holding his sword in the first place since there is a GIANT HOLE THROUGH HIS HAND.

That is approximately what the second half of The Roots of Betrayal looked like in my head. As you can see, I was not fully processing its nuances. Assuming there were any nuances aside from all the stabbing that went on. I'm fairly sure that in a normal universe the main character ought to have died about three times over - but, of course, it was always only a flesh wound.

All in all, admirably silly stuff, but not so much my sort of thing.

2.5 stars.

And so to City of Bohane, which also contained a lot of stabbings. Mercifully, though, these were all described in the way written stabbings ought to be - that is to say, short, sharp and with a mercifully realistic statistical chance of death for the stabbee. 

This is a genuinely bizarre book, and one that took me until I was over half way through it to get any sort of handle on it at all. It's the story of Bohane, a West Irish city in the (probably) post-apocalyptic future, where the residents have become intensely factional and inward-facing (there's the 'Bohane creation' and then the Nation Beyond, which might as well be Mars for how much any of the characters bother about it). Bohane is a terrifyingly nutty urban wilderness, where odds are against anyone seeing their twentieth birthday and where everyone is always about thirty seconds from knifing everyone else in the stomach. 

Fair warning - the language in City of Bohane is insane. It's Irish slang like I've never even seen. You expect a bit of fecking and begorrah-ing in Irish fiction, but this is something else (and, probably, something far more geniunely representative of the way inner-city Irish people actually speak. Which is impressive, but also mostly incomprehensible). I genuinely could not understand what any of the characters were saying to each other for about the first 150 pages, and whole paragraphs of description refused to make sense in my head because of the dialect they were written in.

But then, around the halfway point, the 'Bohanian' dialect switch must have clicked on in my brain, because everything suddenly made sense and I finally realised how beautiful and skillful the book actually is. Accept the fact that every other sentence ends with y'check and it's gorgeous. It also took me quite a while to really notice that what Kevin Barry has done is create a totally alien world  - Bohane and its culture are so complete and believable that I was vaguely assuming that he must have been there once. Then I got to the part where gypsies live on the sand dunes and kidnap people to keep them in slave cages, at which point the penny finally dropped. It's a foreign landscape presented in a way that makes it seem like it might exist in the centre of the city you live in. 

City of Bohane, when you get under its skin, is mesmerisingly mad and weird and lovely, though It takes some serious getting used to. I swung all the way through really not enjoying it at the beginning to being totally entranced by it at the end, and now I want to use Bohanian dialect in everything. Sweet Baba Jay, it's a good one.

 3.5 stars.

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