Tag Archives: book review

The Essex Serpent

By Sarah Perry.

Cora Seaborne is a wealthy, happily widowed amateur palaeontologist who ends up in the Essex village of Aldwinter, which is gripped by tales of the Essex serpent. She is introduced to William Ransome, the local vicar, and his wife, Stella, the local consumptive cliché. Seaborne and Ransome are attracted to each other and eventually have sex before parting. That appears to be the main plot.

Alongside the main plot, Luke Garrett, who fancies Seaborne, is a brilliant surgeon whose hand gets injured in a fight. His rich mate, Spencer, is a champagne socialist who gets involved in London’s housing crisis. The books ends with them as a covertly gay couple even if neither of them is. Seaborne’s companion, Martha, is the object of Spencer’s interest, who stirs his social compassion, but shacks up with Edward Burton, whose life was saved by Garrett’s surgery. Stella Ransome is a satire on the Cult of Thinness, who becomes more beautiful the thinner she gets. Seaborne’s peculiar son, Francis, may be autistic, but this is never established.

The plot rambles dully along without ever seeming to have a clear direction, and the subplot about housing in London has no real connection to events in Essex. Climaxes? Seaborne and Ransome’s copulating? The revelation that the Essex serpent might have been no more than an oarfish or an upturned, missing boat? Who knows? There’s no sense of the story really driving towards a significant conclusion.

Most of the time, The Essex Serpent sounds like a novel written by a Guardian reader about a bunch of Guardian readers transposed to the 19th century, and is packed full of obvious worthiness.

Nonetheless, there is some clever writing here. When Seaborne and Ransome first meet, it appears that his interests lie more in the ovine than the feminine; but this is like one of those films where the trailer is all of the interesting bits, and the rest is entirely missable.

A Feast for Crows

By George R.R. Martin.

By the end of the 4th book of Martin’s Ice and Fire series we have learnt that Daenerys is quite important and that Melisandre is wrong. Those are the only two pieces of information (in my estimation) that have anything at all to do with whatever the main storyline is. (My prediction remains that the real plot is the Others vs. the dragons; everything else is just padding.) The rest is subplots which may or may not have a point.

Repetition

One of the big problems with A Feast for Crows is the repetition.

  1. We know Cersei Lannister is a sneering tyrant. There’s no need to establish this at the start of each of her chapters.
  2. All the religious nutters seem to have come from The Big Book of Religious Nutter Clichés.
  3. Hot chicks from the Summer Isles.
  4. Overuse of the same novelty diction (e.g. mislike, mummer’s farce, be like + inf., upjump).
  5. Another gratuitous lesbian scene, this time with Cersei.
  6. The Night’s Watch still can’t keep their tackle in their trousers.
  7. I think we know that Sam Tarly is timid, and we could also do with some synonyms for “craven”.
  8. We also know that Brienne is quite masculine. It’s well established.
  9. Sansa overdoes the use Sweetrobin. (But I should be grateful that Martin has resisted the use of Bobby, which would be even worse.)
  10. Do we really need another girl shark in the form of Mya Stone? Aren’t Cersei and Asha Grayjoy enough?
  11. Too much casual mutilation.

Significant moments

Sandor and Gregor Clegane are both dead, but died offstage.

Typographical errors

There were several instance of .?.?. in the Kindle edition which could easily have been edited out.

Roll of the dead

Martin continues mowing down characters. Davos Seaforth’s death got mentioned on a number of occasions. Podrick Payne, who was first Tyrion Lannister’s and then Brienne’s squire, got strung up.

New characters

Margaery Tyrell is the new player, but having spent much of her time offscreen, she makes an overly abrupt appearance in her conversation with Cersei. She also seems to fall into the girl shark category.

New subplot

It’s something to do with making Mycella Lannister queen in place of Tommen. Did we need another subplot? Should Martin be throwing yet another kitchen sink into the goulash as it spills out of a pot which was never big enough in the first place?

Lest we forget

The comet which featured so prominently previously has been almost utterly forgotten. The dire wolves, which looked like a motif, have also largely been forgotten.

Conclusion

A Feast for Crows is another collection of subplots which seem to add little or nothing to a main story. Martin has become noticeably repetitious, which doesn’t help allay the feeling that he’s losing (has lost?) control of his bloated epic. Borrow the book from the library or ask for it for Christmas or your birthday. Skip it and possibly A Dance with Dragons as well, and find that you’ve missed almost nothing when the next volume in the series eventually appears.

A Storm of Swords

By George R.R. Martin.

The Starks. Robb suffers from extreme involuntary abdication at the Red Wedding because he did not marry Walder Frey’s daughter. Catelyn continues being a tiresome domestic tyrant, but the same wedding sees her become an apparently undead domestic tyrant. Sansa marries Tyrion Lannister, unwittingly helps to assassinate King Joffrey, and escapes to the Eyrie where Petyr Baelish, having married Sansa’ aunt, Lysa, throws the mad old bat to her death. Arya continues trying to go somewhere, but keeps falling in with all the wrong people, including the undead Sir Beric Dondarrion, before she gets caught by Sir Sandor Clegane. She arrives at the Red Wedding just in time to miss the fun, but does get to whack or see whacked some of the people on her to-do list. She eventually gets away from the badly wounded Sandor Clegane and gets to say Valar morghulis, which seems to mean “I’d like to travel first class, please”. Carried by Hodor, Bran travels north with Jojen and Meera Reed in search of the three-eyed crow. The party has encounters with Jon Snow and Sam Tarly, who helps them pass beneath the wall and who delivers them to the mysterious Coldhands. Jon Snow also goes over the wall where he finds himself with the wildings and getting some from the world’s most annoying girlfriend before returning to the Night Watch where he is accused of being a traitor and elevated to the rank of Lord Commander.

The Lannisters. Like Arya, Jaime ends up doing a lot of travelling with Brienne of Tarth after Catelyn unilaterally releases him to get Sansa and Arya back. Like Arya, he falls in with the wrong people and ends up losing a hand, but makes it to King’s Landing where he is promoted and falls out with his father, Tywin. Tyrion is forced to marry Sansa Stark, who is now, supposedly, the sole surviving Stark and heiress to Winterfell. The wedding is a farce, and Tyrion treats Sansa well even although it brings much mockery from others. After Joffrey’s death, Cersei accuses her brother of his murder, and he is condemned only to be rescued by Jaime and Varys. From Jaime he learns the truth about his first wife, Tysha, but tells his brother that he did indeed assassinate Joffrey (untrue) as a parting shot. As Varys leads Tyrion to safety, the Imp pays a call on his father’s room where he finds Shae, his rental friend, who betrayed him at the trial, and his father, who he also kills.

Daenerys. Daenerys acquired an army of eunuchs and conquered several cities before deciding to settle down. It turned out that Ser Barristan Selmy, who had been so unceremoniously dismissed from his post as High Commander of the Kingsguard after Joffrey’s ascension to the throne, had been working for Daenerys for quite some time, and the supposedly faithful Ser Jorah Mormont had originally been working for Varys. In spite of Mormont’s assistance in the conquest of Meereen, he was dismissed.

The Rest. Sam Tarly gets his own chapters. He manages to kill one of the Others with an obsidian dagger, rescues one of Craster’s wife-daughters (Gilly), and escapes from Craster’s home after the murder of the Lord Commander. With help from Coldhands, he delivers Gilly safely to the far side of the wall, and engineers Jon Snow’s promotion to Lord Commander. Davos Seaworth survives various trials and is even elevated to the post of Hand to King Stannis. He saves Edric Storm, Robert Baratheon’s bastard son, from Melisandre’s mania for human sacrifice. Theon Greyjoy takes Winterfell, which is then taken off him by the brutal Ramsey Snow. After that, Geryjoy disappears from the story.

A Storm of Swords is beginning to reveal the cracks in Martin’s bloated epic. He has got repetitious, which is especially obvious in the adventures of Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. Arya’s story also tends to be the same thing: she keeps falling in with some fairly dubious characters, looking for some way of escaping from them, escaping, and then doing it all over again. There are repeated human rights violations, which are merely tedious rather than shocking. The women in the story tend to be repetitious. There are a few too many whores and the word gets used ad nauseam. The massacre at the Red Wedding was very revenge tragedy, but Joffrey’s demise at his wedding seemed to be milking the same cow for no particular reason.

At times events also got a little obvious. Sansa Stark’s romantic notions are an obvious target for undermining. She’s hoping to marry some brave, handsome knight, but finds that she may get landed with a less handsome knight, and then gets married to a badly scarred dwarf. The pretty Jaime Lannister gets stuck with the ugly, lumpen Brienne of Tarth. Tyrion’s misfortunes also got to be more of the same as he ducked and dived through the toxic politics of King’s Landing.

The multiple narrative threads in the book have occasionally coincided, but there’s very little feeling of integration. I’m left wondering where it’s all going because at this point I can’t see exactly what Martin’s intending. My current prediction is that the battle between the God of Light and the Others is probably going to be the ultimate conflict; or perhaps not. Perhaps Daenerys and her dragons (fire vs. the ice of the Others) are going to play a central role in that. It doesn’t matter whether my predictions turn out to be correct or not, but ultimately I’m hoping for a satisfactory conclusion as the threads of the story are brought together. They are going to be brought together, aren’t they? Once Martin has finished, how much of the entire saga will actually have contributed to the main plot? (I’m inclined to think it should have been Vol. 1 Stark Saga [250pp.], Vol. 2 Lannister Saga [250pp.], Vol. 3 Return of the Dragons [250pp.]. Done. Dusted, Debloated.)

Martin has tended to be a safe pair of lexical hands, but there are occasions when he slips. I noticed at least one “stymied”, which loses marks for inappropriate diction, and there were other places where the author seemed to have nodded off. He suddenly had Jon Snow’s wilding girlfriend, Ygritte, speaking in Dialect when she wasn’t constantly saying, “You know nothing, Jon Snow”; but previously she hadn’t spoken in Dialect. Then another character started speaking in Dialect, which had the effect of making the writing feel unrevised.

Martin seems to have opted for sensationalism (just look at Catelyn’s reappearance in the Epilogue) and mismatched buddy episodes in A Storm of Swords to keep readers going. I haven’t lost patience with the series, but I’m wondering how much longer my toleration will last.

The Edinburgh Dead

By Brian Ruckley.

There’s been an odd death in Edinburgh and Taggart, sorry, Adam Quire is on the case in spite of the Edinburgh establishment and Lieutenant Baird. Things take a turn for the weird when he encounters a man who refuses to die, and some dogs of a similar inclination. There’s only one thing for it.

(Early 19th century Edinburgh. Medical schools. Human anatomy. See, I knew you’d say, “Burke and Hare.”) Yup, Burke and Hare. I know you’re groaning. So am I. Let’s cut to the chase. The demon takes possession of Hare; Quire whacks him; end of story.

Now before you think that I’m about to throw a turnip or two at Ruckley for resorting to the world’s two most overused body snatchers as (fairly minor) characters in his book, I will observe that he’s a perfectly decent and readable writer. He doesn’t approach this as if the supernatural is an ordinary, commonplace thing. Instead, Quire finds himself dealing with something entirely out of the ordinary which neither he nor the reader really properly understands in the end. Some sort of entity possessed Blegg and then Hare, but the details remain a mystery. Ruckley could’ve started referring to druids and Crom Cruach (“the worm that turns” [Are you sure about that? –ed.]) , but spares us from the sort of excess in which, say, American fantasy authors would be prone to indulge.

A good read, but less Burke and Hare next time.

Johannes Cabal The Detective

By Jonathan L. Howard.

It’s Cabal’s second outing, which finds him apprehended after trying to steal the Principia Necromantica from the Mirkavians. Cabal looks to be in big trouble, but the villainous Count Marechal needs the necromancer to resurrect the recently deceased emperor in order to stage a coup. In the ensuing confusion, Cabal escapes aboard a steampunk airship, the Princess Hortense, which is flying to Katamenia via Senza. (All very Ruritanian locales; somewhat Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

But not all is well on board the vessel, with two mysterious deaths and Leonie Barrow, who has the means to reveal Cabal’s true identity to the authorities, yet doesn’t, just as Cabal cannot quite abandon her to her fate either.

I suppose Johannes Cabal The Detective is like Murder on the Orient Express with a necromancer instead of a Belgian and an airship instead of a train. Comparatively little necromancy occurs in the course of the story although there is a late encounter with a lich, and Cabal is more James Bond than a commander of undead armies. (I want the name of a well-known lich from literature, but the only ones I know are Acererak or Kartak Spulzeer from the D&D pantheon; I suppose there is Glámr from Grettis Saga.)

I liked the story, but it’s like Howard wanted to do ’tec fic’ and decided to cast Cabal in the lead.

61 years later

And still no popular mandate.
 
Yes, it’s that time of the year again. 61 years ago Chairman Mao announced the opening of the People’s Republic of China. “Out with the old abuses,” he said, “and in with the new.” The local wits in Beijing asked themselves, “Chairman who? The what party? I don’t remember voting for you.”
 
I went to Chengdu to see Linda, where the weather actually managed to behave itself and even be pleasant apart from the day of my arrival. Actually, it followed the same pattern almost every day, which was a dull start with mist and high grey cloud followed by the cloud breaking up and letting a little sunshine through.
 
01.10.10
But I’m starting with the weather and not my journey. Because it was around lunchtime when I went to wait for a taxi, and there were few around, I thought I might have a bit of a wait. Although there were no taxis outside my place (as there often are), I didn’t have to wait too long, and the journey to the airport was quite fast.
 
While I was waiting to check in, it was announced that the flight had been delayed because of air traffic control, which seems to be their standard, uninformative excuse. My flight was meant to leave just before 3.00pm, but we didn’t depart for another two hours. My slight compensation was that my suitcase was one of the first on the carousel.
 
02.10.10
I needed to buy batteries for my camera in the morning. I also decided to go and get some money out, and as I was passing the fruit shop on the corner opposite the school, I saw a cat which was more interested in something else than the people passing by. The object of its interest was a brown rat tied up by its tail to one of the awning supports. I have no idea why the rat had been fettered in this way, but the cat was thinking about lunch. Don’t think I’ll be buying fruit from that shop.
 

I wouldn't want this wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside me.

But it wasn’t just rats. After I’d been to Carrefour to do some shopping, I was walking past the police equipment shops on 南大街 when I saw a spider sidling up to the kerb, and as you can see from the picture, it wasn’t exactly a small spider if you compare its leg span to the height of the kerb. I assume that it’s some sort of hunting spider, and a lucky one at that because it seems to have crossed the road. It might’ve been hunting crickets, which are quite abundant at the moment.
 
Linda and I went to Tianfu Square to have a look at the new Metro system, but when we got there, there were hordes of people with the same idea, and we contented ourselves with observing the press from above. More about the Metro in a bit.
 
03.10.10
The Subway which was over near the cinema beside the clothing street has now reappeared in the building across the road from the Fortune Centre. That’s where Trust Mart used to be, but has now gone. There’s also another branch of CSC next door to Subway, although I assume the CSC beside the entrance to Carrefour in the Fortune Centre is still operating.
 
People queuing for the Chengdu Metro, 1st October 2010.
We went out to Ikea to amuse ourselves in the afternoon. That reminds me that I meant to have a look for tea towels, but forgot. Not a desperate oversight, though since I have plenty. A couple of the older ones probably need to be retired.
 
Excursus: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I took the book with me to read, having made little progress with it since I was reading short sections while I was waiting for the computer to do things. Mikael Blomkvist has been convicted of libelling Hans-Erik Wennerström and is going to have to do some porridge while his magazine, Millennium, teeters on the brink of collapse. In the meantime, Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet in 1966. It’s a nice littler earner for Blomkvist with the promise of evidence proving that Wennerström is a crook at the end of it.
 
Lisbeth Salander works for Milton Security and has her own problems to deal with. She’s anti-social and has a troubled history, but also has certain skills and qualities which make her exceptionally good at what she does. After her new guardian, Nils Bjurman, abuses and rapes her, she has her revenge, and manages to free herself from his clutches.
 
Salander’s work and Blomkvist’s eventually coincide to reveal the truth behind Harriet’s disappearance, and that the current head of the Vanger Corporation is continuing in his father’s footsteps as a misogynistic serial killer.
 
If I’d been forewarned, I would’ve skipped about half the book and started on Chapter 16 when Blomkvist makes his crucial observations which lead him to solve the case. Until then, I was wondering whether anything was actually going to happen because Salander’s dealings with her new guardian are the B plot (although as I’ve now discovered, there’s more to that story in The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) even although she and Blomkvist eventually work together.
 
I wonder whether Mikael Blomkvist is Stieg Larsson, but he gets to shag hot, middle-aged Swedish babes and The Girl who Looked like Jail Bait. There’s more than a slight hint of 007 about Blomkvist.
 
The Vanger Family are generally portrayed as a fairly depraved bunch, being pro-Nazi or violent sexual deviants or both. Larsson appears not to have liked big business in Sweden.
 
04.10.10
I was half asleep when someone screamed in one of the adjacent rooms some time between 3.30am and 4.00am, and through the peephole of mine I watched some guy coaxing some girl who was either drunk or stoned (because she seemed to have problems focusing and walking) into one of the other rooms. He didn’t seem to be at all interested in assisting her. Anyway, that interrupted my sleep, as did some cricket.
 
Linda and I went out to the new Renhe on the 2nd Ring Road, which is in sight of Metro down at the next intersection. There was a Rolls Royce on display outside, though it was an ugly tank-like thing. We wandered round the mall, looking at the shops to see what was there. Linda bought herself a rather nice bracelet by a Danish designer, Pilgrim, which was a band of flowers of alternating colours in a gold setting, which went well with Linda’s complexion.
 
After tea at Subway later on, we went and had a look round the Yanlord Landmark Building, which is one of the new malls just near the Fortune Centre. The place had a couple of Clark’s shoe shops, one of which included the modern version of the kind of shoes I wore when I was at school, but the prices were a little steep, being twice what I’d consider reasonable. There was a small restaurant which offered fairly modestly priced fare which you might have for lunch, and a Japanese restaurant upstairs. We went into the Louis Vuitton shop, which was full of rich peasants (so Linda told me) who were quite vulgar enough to spend ¥10,000 on a handbag. (Speaking of conspicuous consumption, I saw a Jaguar and an Aston Martin [V8 Vantage or DB9; not sure] while I was in Chengdu.)
 
05.10.10
We tried our luck on the Chengdu Metro, and took a trip out to the computer centre on the 1st Ring Road. I wanted to have a look at DVDs, and we were taken into the depths of the building past a few Circles of Hell to get to the shop. The basement is now another sales area. I didn’t buy much in the end, and I’m still wondering whether I’m ever going to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the latest series of Dr Who, or one or two other recent releases.
 
Linda then went looking for a new pair of headphones and found a brand called SOMiC. I’d like to see if I can get the same pair which she bought, because they were comfortable to wear with my glasses on. My current headphones press on the arms and on the top of my head, and can give me a headache if I wear them for too long. The sound quality was also good.
 
As for the Metro, it’s fairly straightforward to use, and very similar to Hong Kong. It has zones like London so that if you want to go to the end of the line, you pay ¥4, while shorter journeys are obviously cheaper. You wave your card at the sensor to enter, and then insert it in the machine when you depart. You can probably get the equivalent of an Octopus Card.
 
Later, we went to the Foreign Languages Bookshop because I wanted to see whether I might be able to get the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The foreign books have now moved from the right-hand side of the third floor to the left-hand side, and are horribly muddled. The old sections seem to have survived, but they’re not marked, and it was by chance that I found The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. If The Girl who Played with Fire was there, I didn’t see it.
 
I also went looking at digital cameras again, out of curiosity rather than a definite intention to buy one. I must admit I didn’t see anything which got me overexcited. I’ve had my current camera for about 3½ years or so, and there haven’t been any great advances as far as I can tell. The current successor to my DSC-H5 is the HX1, but that seemed rather expensive. I’ve been wondering whether to try Canon, Nikon, or Olympus.
 
06.10.10
I thought about doing something since I wasn’t going to be meeting Linda until lunchtime, and then I thought not, and then I decided to because I didn’t want to hang around in the hotel room. I went over to 春熙路 to have a nose around the place to while away the time. Had a look around Ito Yokado, and was about to go into Isetan when Linda sent me a message saying she was at the hotel.
 
We had lunch at High Fly before heading out to the airport on the bus. Because of the delay on my way to Chengdu, I feared that the plane might be two hours late leaving. In fact, it actually managed to leave on time, and arrive in Wuxi on time, which must be a first for Chinese civil aviation. If not, it’s a first for me.

On the blade, Arthur could see some letters

“Product of more than one country.”

Merlin was one of those curiosity DVDs which I’ve seen several times, but have never felt inclined to buy. It’s another version of Arthurian legend which makes Merlin Arthur’s servant, Arthur merely the crown prince, and Uther Pendragon a king who hates magic. Guinevere is now the blacksmith’s daughter and servant to Morgana, who is the king’s ward. Mordred is no longer Arthur’s nephew, but a druid. In a nod to the Anglo-American tone of the programme, Dark Age Britain is an egalitarian place where servants are quite familiar with their masters, though not familiar enough for Arthur to be able to admit publically that he fancies Guinevere (usually called Gwen; another Anglo-Americanism). In fact, you could translate the whole thing to an American high school. 

The only two familiar faces among the cast are Anthony Head as the tyrannical Uther, and Richard Wilson as the court physician, Gaius, who spends a lot of time in some of the earlier episodes exhorting the genius of science. The familiar name is John Hurt, who is the voice of the dragon which Uther has imprisoned beneath Camelot. The rest of the cast seem to have a lot of fun playing their parts. Arthur is a pompous ass who knows when to do the right thing even although it might mean defying his father’s wishes. Merlin would like to be himself, but can’t. Morgana also has magical powers, but these were never really developed in the course of the first two series, and she got to turn evil instead. Guinevere wishes that Arthur could be more open about his feelings for her, although her own don’t stop her from giving him a piece of her mind. 

There’s plenty of religion, but this is the New Age Dark Ages, which means druids and the Old Religion. Of Christianity, there’s not a trace, but across the land there’d no doubt be scores of younger viewers asking, “What’s Christianity?” to which their parents would reply, “The druids, I think. Why don’t you look it up on wikipedia?”


The Rise of the Iron Moon.

This is the third volume in Stephen Hunt’s series about the world of Jackals and the least engaging of them. In this episode, the Army of Shadows sweeps all opposition before it and only a desperate mission to the planet of Kaliban to find the Great Sage can save the planet from annihilation. Molly Templar and Oliver are back for a time along with Commodore Black and Aliquot Coppertracks. The new hero is Purity Drake who is also Black’s daughter and who is instrumental in defeating the Army of the Shadows and their vampire-like masters.

I assume that the book is a satire on consumerism or bankers or both. I also assume that Hunt knew the Bandits of the Marsh probably wouldn’t mean anything to most of his readers because they’re unfamiliar with the classic Chinese novel The Water Margin (aka Outlaws of the Marsh). Whatever Hunt’s sources were for this book, they’re outside of my knowledge by and large. The gun that’s used to shoot the party to Kaliban was no doubt inspired by From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne. The Army of Shadows sounds like something from horror fiction rather than sci-fi or fantasy, but I can’t think of any immediate antecedents.

I’ve been trying to think why this volume is less entertaining than the others. Is it because the basic plot is the same as the previous two novels in which Jackals is threatened with utter destruction but for someone with miraculous powers who is able to counteract the threat? Is it because Hunt does waffle on somewhat? Is it because, as one review observed, his characters don’t have much depth? Commodore Black would probably make a much more interesting protagonist than Molly or Oliver or Purity because he has more experience and mystery about him, and because he doesn’t have super-powers. Perhaps that’s where these novels are at their weakest because they’re about superheroes who, conveniently, have just the right super-power.

Appendix

While doing a little research on From the Earth to the Moon on wikipedia, I stumbled across the following:

Barbicane appears in Kevin J. Anderson‘s novel Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius as an Ottoman official whose chief rival, Robur, designs a number of innovative weapons to counteract him, including an attempt to launch a three-man mission to the Moon.

Robur is the scientist from Quatérshift whom Cornelius Fortune rescues in The Kingdom beyond the Waves. Thus I find that the character seems to have been taken from another novel by Jules Verne, Robur the Conqueror. Very League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, methinks. In fact, I then found that Robur also appears in that series.

A Dream of Red Mansions I

Precious children

I’ve come to the end of the first volume of A Dream of Red Mansions. Like the other classic Chinese novels I’ve read, this one seems to be rambling and aimless. In fact, volume 1 is about 600 pages long. I know where things are meant to be going, but they don’t seem to be in any hurry to get there.

So far, it’s really been a tale of precious (in the bad sense) adolescents living in a world of painfully petty social etiquette. It’s an odd sort of world, too, in which everyone has a bunch of maids running around after them, but the maids are not exactly subservient.

What’s the deal with Baoyu? He’s definitely a girly boy, but perhaps not in the gay sense. It’s hard to tell. He’s only marginally less precious than the consumptive Lin Daiyu who spends most of her time, it seems, blubbing and having tantrums. As is typical with the Chinese, there seems to be no reaction that’s not an extreme reaction.

Overall, this is a world of the immature. The main characters are in their mid-teens, which means that their parents are probably only in their thirties, and the Old Ancentress (as she is called) is probably about 48.

Well, there are three more volumes to go so things may get better. Actually, I should say, “become clearer”, because right now the story remains aimless.

The first three classic Chinese novels haven’t received my seal of critical approval. They all suffer from being long and rambling. The Three Kingdoms fell flat once the original protagonists had died. The Journey to the West was boringly repetitive once you got to the journey itself. Outlaws of the Marsh turned into a repeat screening of The Three Kingdoms (having been written by the same person).