Guest Review – The Power by Naomi Alderman

After reviewing some of 2019’s most intriguing reads with Pan’s Labyrinth, The Testaments and The Fowl Twins, my amazing editor/wife Alex (editor is the important part there) attempts to muscle in on my Throwback Thursday territory in her latest Guest Review by checking out The Power by Naomi Alderman.

The Power Cover

Publisher: Penguin (Trade Paperback – 27 October 2016)

Series: Stand Alone/Book One

Length: 341 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’m on a mission to conquer my habit of buying more books than I can read. I picked up The Power because I recognised Naomi Alderman’s name from one of my favourite apps, Zombies, Run!, for which she is the lead writer. Zombies, Run! is primarily an exercise app, but its best feature is its compelling and immersive narrative about a community of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. So when I stumbled upon a copy of one of Alderman’s books I was immediately keen to check it out. Unfortunately, my reading of it was interrupted and it has been sadly shelved for the last year and a half. When I resolved to tackle my collection of unread books this year, I knew The Power had to be first on the list.

The Power chronicles a world in which young women develop a biological power to create and manipulate electricity. There are four main threads in the story, following a small collection of key characters on their adventures during the first decade of the change. The first is Roxy Monke, the child of an English gangster, who uses her power with devastating effect to build and control a vast criminal empire. Tunde Edo is a young Nigerian man who discovers a passion for photojournalism when he happens to capture video of an early attack using the power. He travels the world documenting the great upheavals and rebellions that the power inspires. Margot Cleary is an American politician, and through her we see how the change affects government. Allie is a young American runaway with perhaps the greatest control over her power of any woman in the world, which she uses to establish herself as a respected and feared cult leader of women. There is also an extensive cast of excellent side characters, including Margot’s daughter Jocelyn, who struggles as a young woman without a fully developed power, and Tatiana Moskalev, the wife of the president of Moldova.

What I always enjoy most about speculative fiction with several narrators is the way that readers get to experience so much of the world that has been created. This is particularly true in The Power, since each of the characters (especially Tunde) is very well travelled, and as a result we get a glimpse of how the power affects societies all over the world, as well as how the world changes over the 10 years covered in the book. We see the initial scepticism of women spontaneously evolving the power to emit and control electricity. We see the fear set in as it becomes clear how dangerous the power can be, both when it is used as an attack against individuals and when women band together to challenge misogynistic and oppressive regimes and governments. We see how cults and societies develop as the status quo is forever changed and the new power imbalance between men and women becomes firmly established. The events that unfold in Moldova are particularly fascinating. All in all, there’s not a dull moment in the whole book, and though it is at times brutally violent it is always deeply compelling.

I really loved the way the narrative is framed as a dramatisation of historical events, in a fashion similar to that of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. The book begins and ends with correspondence between Neil, who appears to be a budding historian and author, and Naomi, who is surely his mentor or perhaps his publisher. Neil and Naomi speculate on the accuracy of the story, given that they are removed from these events by several hundred years and have only the archaeological record to guide them. I was also very pleased to find chapters interspersed with illustrations and interpretations of artefacts from the time of the change, such as idols, grave sites and internet forum threads. These elements in particular made the archaeologist in me very happy.

The Power is a fantastic exploration of a world suddenly and dramatically shaken to its core. I’m going to have to check out some more of Naomi Alderman’s work, and I’m only sorry I hadn’t read this one sooner.

Guest Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

In her latest guest review, the Unseen Library’s editor, Alex, checks out one of the biggest releases of the year, and also sets herself up to do some more reviews for the blog in the future.

The Testaments Cover

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)

Series: The Handmaid’s Tale – Book 2

Length: 419 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Unlike the Unseen Librarian himself, who seems to have no problem zipping through several books a week, I tend to buy books faster than I read them. I was very pleased, and not at all surprised, to find there’s a phrase for this in Japanese: tsundoku, meaning one who acquires books with every intention of reading them, but who never gets around to it. Well, it’s high time that I try to kick this habit and delve into my shelf of unread books, beginning with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.

We received a copy of The Testaments way back in September 2019, before the honeymoon hiatus, but unfortunately the large, heavy hardback wouldn’t have fared well in my suitcase, so although I was keen to read it I was forced to leave it behind. Unfortunately several other distractions (including Eoin Colfer’s The Fowl Twins) meant it wasn’t until the post-Christmas calm that I took the time to finish it off, but I am so glad that I did, because this is a first-rate book that didn’t deserve to wait so long for my attention.

The Handmaid’s Tale reported the experiences of Offred, a Handmaid to a powerful Commander in the post-revolutionary United States, the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. The Testaments picks up the story several years later, and features accounts of three women and their own struggles for survival in Gilead. I won’t go into detail about the plot of the book (I’m sure reviewers with better time management skills have beaten me to it), only to say that it was incredibly engaging and suspenseful. Those who enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale will love to see how the world has changed over the years.

I was absolutely thrilled by all of the world-building in The Testaments. The new regime of Gilead is fascinating, but in The Handmaid’s Tale details are limited to what Offred chooses to share in her narrative, which itself is limited by what Offred knows, given the sheltered and isolated life she is forced to live as a Handmaid. The Testaments, on the other hand, with its multiple narrators, presents a far broader view of life in Gilead. The first narrator is an Aunt, one of the powerful matrons who train the Handmaids and teach the children. In fact, she is none other than Aunt Lydia, the indomitable battleaxe responsible for the indoctrination of Offred who features so prominently in the original book. The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, the daughter of a powerful Commander. Her story is recorded after her liberation from Gilead and provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of a child growing up in the regime. The third narrator is Daisy, a child growing up in Canada. From her we get an outside view of Gilead—how the terrible society is viewed by its near neighbours and how the Mayday resistance seeks to help its people. The three tales are each engaging in their own right, but as they become more and more intertwined the story only gets better.

There are elements of the story that tie into the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, but literary purists who have not watched the show will enjoy The Testaments just the same. Since it is a sequel, however, I would say that it will be best enjoyed by those who have read The Handmaid’s Tale or seen at least the first season of the show. The Testaments is a book that was 35 years in the making, but it was well worth the wait.

Guest Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

For this entry, my lovely and talented editor Alex steps out of the shadows once again (after previously reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth) and provides us with a guest review of a book she recently picked up.

The Fowl Twins Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: The Fowl Twins – Book One

Length: 432 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Unseen Library occasionally raises the topic of auto-buy authors, and Eoin Colfer is one of mine. I’m already hyped for Highfire, so you can imagine my excitement when I happened upon a display of The Fowl Twins in a department store the other day. I didn’t even break my stride or pause to read the back cover; as soon as I saw the words “Colfer” and “Fowl” I picked up a copy and had started reading it before I reached the checkout queue. The eight Artemis Fowl books followed the eponymous juvenile criminal mastermind and his many run-ins with the People, the secret civilisation of magical beings living deep underground. The series ran from 2001 to 2012 and was one of my favourites growing up, so I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Colfer is now continuing the saga.

The Fowl Twins picks up the story several years after Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, the final book in the original series. Artemis himself gets a rest; this story follows his younger brothers, Myles and Beckett. Myles is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as Artemis and their father, with a talent for the sciences, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a penchant for fashionable suits and cutting insults. Beckett is more interested in active pursuits and making friends with wildlife, but he shares the same cunning and passionate loyalty that Fowls are famous for. The twins were only toddlers in Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian and have no memory of the People, and it appears that their lives have been relatively quiet since those events. But in the Fowl world quiet never lasts for long, and when a rare troll surfaces on the family estate the twins suddenly find themselves in the midst of a cat-and-mouse game with an LEP specialist, an immortal duke and a knife-wielding nun.

Given that this is the ninth book set in the Fowl universe, the story is built upon a great deal of already-established Fairy lore and, indeed, laws. However, it does not wholly rely on readers having a certain level of assumed knowledge; Colfer ensures that no reader gets left behind. The appropriate backstory and important details are provided where necessary in his usual elegant style so that new readers are informed and old fans aren’t bored by the rehashing of exposition. As an old fan myself, albeit one with an appalling memory, I really appreciated the unobtrusive reminders of previous events in the Fowl canon.

There is of course a lot for fans of the original series to enjoy, including some excellent cameos. I found that many elements of the story mirrored the original Artemis Fowl. Myles and Beckett are around the same age Artemis was in his first Fairy adventure, and it was amazing to see how their different upbringings shaped them. When we first meet Artemis, he is in a desperate pursuit to rescue his father from a Russian mafia and his mother from her rapidly deepening delirium. Myles and Beckett, on the other hand, have enjoyed an upbringing with an intact, stable family and without the inherent danger that comes with being part of an active criminal empire. They are, as a result, far more well adjusted 11-year-olds, and it was so enjoyable to see the bond the boys all share.

Also like Artemis Fowl, The Fowl Twins features at its core a plot to kidnap a Fairy creature for personal gain, but this time the Fowls are innocent. Instead, the baddie is the whimsically named Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye, who I can’t help but imagine as a scoundrel in the style of Terry-Thomas, whose ruthless quest for immortality leads him to the Fowl estate to tackle a troll. No Fowl story would be complete without the involvement of the LEP, and Specialist Lazuli Heitz finds herself in an uncomfortably similar position to Captain Holly Short, in that her supposedly straightforward surface mission goes immediately haywire as soon as the Fowls get involved. Lazuli is an excellent addition to the main cast of characters, and her talent for quick-thinking and creative problem-solving perfectly complement those of the boys she finds herself teamed up with.

The Fowl Twins is an excellent blend of suspense and action, and Eoin Colfer’s impeccably charming style of omniscient narration means there’s never a dull moment. The story is also incredibly fast-paced, with 400-odd pages covering only a couple of days, and so compelling that I finished reading it in no time. This book is fun for all ages and would make an excellent Christmas gift for a young new reader, a 20-something who loved the original series, or really anyone who enjoys a suspenseful story with a magical element. I can’t wait to see more adventures of Myles, Beckett and Lazuli.

Guest Review: Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke

For this entry, my editor and future wife Alex managed to talk me into letting her do a review.  We hope you enjoy this guest review, and Alex may do some more in the future.

Pan's Labyrinth Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2019)

Series: Pan’s Labyrinth

Length: 297 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

As the chief editor for The Unseen Library, I read far more book reviews than books, but every now and then the mood strikes just right, and I am fortunate to share a house filled to the brim with books waiting to be enjoyed. I thought I’d commemorate the latest occasion by writing a review of my own:

Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish-language dark fantasy film written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Thirteen years after its release, Guillermo del Toro and bestselling author Cornelia Funke have transformed the screenplay of the film into a beautiful work of prose.

Pan’s Labyrinth is part of a modern tradition of fairytales in which children have fantastic adventures whilst the adults are busy with war. In Spain, in 1944, young Ofelia and her mother join the household of Capitan Vidal, who is responsible for hunting down the anti-fascist guerrillas hiding in the mountainous forests nearby. Left to her own devices and enchanted by fairy tales, Ofelia is drawn to the ancient stone labyrinth near their new home. There she meets the Faun, who tells her she is in fact the missing princess of the Underground Kingdom. In order to reclaim her place in the kingdom and escape her terrible new stepfather, she must prove her courage and worthiness by completing three tasks. This is easier said than done; these tasks themselves are life-threateningly perilous, but Ofelia must also try to protect herself and her heavily pregnant and ailing mother from the ruthless Capitan and the rebels at the door.

Guillermo del Toro is renowned for making visually stunning films, and Pan’s Labyrinth was no exception; in fact, it won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup. I am happy to report that the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth faithfully re-imagines the amazing sets, characters and creatures of the film. In the absence of cinematography, visual design and Doug Jones in monster makeup, the authors have relied on using a great deal of descriptive language to bring scenes to life in text. This is also supported by a number of illustrations throughout the book which clearly drew from the art of the film. It had been many years since I last saw the film, but the imagery of the story is so well produced that I was easily able to imagine many long-forgotten scenes according to del Toro’s vision.

There are many advantages of this novelisation. In particular, the book gives a great deal of insight into various characters not afforded by the film. We see Ofelia’s thought processes as she observes the adults around her and as she obeys or defies the Faun’s instructions. We understand the fierce motivation of Mercedes and Dr Ferreira as they desperately try to assist the rebels in the hills without being discovered. Most terrifying of all, we catch a glimpse of the inner mind of Capitan Vidal, the Wolf, whose horrendous acts of violence rival those of the Pale Man. The inner monologues of these characters provided in the book enable us to have a greater appreciation of their perspectives, actions and motivations.

For the most part, the novelisation follows the story of the film faithfully, but it also includes a number of additional chapters. These feature stories of the Underground Kingdom and its magic bleeding into the Upper Kingdom, creating the lore and mythology that surrounds the Spanish landscape in which the story is set. These grim and interconnected fairy tales provide amazing context for the enigmatic Faun and the nature and gravity of the tasks Ofelia must complete, as well as being beautiful and moving stories in their own right.

Fans of the film will know exactly what to expect from the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth and will appreciate the additional fairy tales and insights it provides. Those who haven’t seen the film (and there is always a cohort of cinemagoers that dislikes or struggles with subtitled films) will feel as though they had, as this gruesome and fantastic story has been beautifully transferred onto the page.