Witty romantic comedy. James Bond is a hitman and a sociopath, with an MI5 approved licence to kill. Vesper Lynd is a government accountant.
When the pair spend a weekend together playing cards, will sparks fly?
And can Vesper make James see that there’s more to life than the exhilirating high of murder?
Like myself, I’d imagine most people will be aware of Gulliver’s Travels as the book where the little people tie down the hero. What I didn’t realise before reading it was that Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput are just one of four parts, as the hero visits a series of different lands.
Swift’s writing is very dry prose that demands the reader’s full attention. I was reading partially during my lunch break, and often not quite taking in what I was reading, having to go back and read it again.
According to the introduction, traveller’s diaries were a popular genre at the time, full of fantastical stories that modern readers would recognise as fantasy. John Mandeville, an ‘explorer’ a few centuries before Gulliver, told a series of ludicrous lies which were apparently one of the motivating reasons for Columbus’ most famous voyage.
Gulliver, the narrator of his adventures, states near the beginning that he’s travelled to the places in other books, only to find they were much more mundane than the tales, and left him disillusioned, pretty much pointing out up front that the book is a deliberate exaggeration of this genre.
It’s probably not the most obvious description to apply to the book, but Gulliver’s Travels is fun and inventive, in a dry, understated, deadpan way. As a taste of the kind of thing I mean, in A Modest ProposalSwift put forward an argument for solving Ireland’s twin problems of overpopulation and lack of food…by eating their own babies. But by the tone of writing, many people at the time thought that Swift, an influential political figure in his day job, was putting this forward as a serious suggestion.
There’s nothing quite as radical in Gulliver’s Travels, but that kind of mad invention and deadpan tone are on display throughout Gulliver’s Travels.
Part I covers Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput. These aren’t laugh out loud hilarious, but pretty funny in an understated deadpan way. They’re written in a way you could believe that the extreme events really happened.
In Part II Gulliver visits Brobdingnag, a land of giants just north of California, and offers a semi-plausible reason why they had remained out of touch with the wider world, before, amongst other things, fencing with a giant fly.
It’s a bit hard to get into the mentality of a 17th century reader and understand their understanding of the world, at a time when many corners of the world weren’t fully mapped out. But the tone really sells these crazy stories.
Although I don’t imagine much of this has survived into modern TV and movie adaptations, there’s a fair bit of pretty silly contemporary satire. There is a major religious divide in Lilliput is over which end of the egg is the moral end to crack, and the people of Lilliput are buried vertically, and upside down, in the belief that Judgement Day will begin on the far side of the world.
Personally, my favourite parts of the book were the less famous Parts III & IV.
In Part III Gulliver travels to Laputa, which, thanks to a mineral naturally occurring in its soil, floats in the sky. Laputa is a nation of incredibly talented mathematicians, who have very little understanding of any other subjects, but feel their mathematical genius qualifies them to be experts on everything. Interestingly, according to the notes (I read the 2001 Penguin edition) the people of this nation were based on Swift’s political opponent, Sir Isaac Newton. Yes, the same one.
Gulliver then visits the projectors of Lagado, a nearby nation. Influenced by Laputa, they had embarked on a series of grand plans to utterly reinvent their society, very few of which work.
In Part IV Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of hyper-evolved horses so noble and idealistic that they have no understanding of the concept of lying. The Houyhnhnms are noble and logical, but contemptuous of the barbaric humans (the Yahoos) who live amongst them. The Houyhnhnms and the increasingly impressionable Gulliver put together a strong case against the barbarism of the wider world, while allowing their own love of reason to lead them down a quite horrific path. While I thought Part III was the cleverest of the stories, Part IV was the section that grabbed me most on an emotional, instinctive level.
I’ve no supportive evidence for this, but reading Part IV it struck me as a possible inspiration for Planet of the Apes, so deep are the similarities.
However, in spite of all that, Gulliver’s Travels is, to a large extent, defined by the time that produced it. Though the notes explained what a reader of the time would have been reminded of, the explanations understandably interrupted the flow, and I’m sure many things would have struck a 17th century reader that didn’t occur to me.
Verdict: A drily written adventure, with a mixture of satire and silliness, that’s most entertaining and imaginative in the lesser known sections.
The Devil Rides Out is a story of Satanic worship in upper class 1930s Britain.
Wheatley was a very prolific writer, and Devil is drawn from his Modern Musketeers strand. The titular musketeers are 4 friends – the elderly French exile De Richelau, the American adventurer Rex van Ryn, family man Richard and supernaturally curious Simon.
The characters are colourful but not that complex. Going back to the original Three Musketeers, Aramis wasn’t that good a fighter, and was waiting for his opportunity to join the priesthood; one of the others had a secret past that was slowly unveiled. They’re surprising and contradictory in ways that draw you in, make you want to learn more about them. In addition, there’s not much in the way of inner desires – D’Artagnan wanted to prove himself, Aramis to reconcile his womanising and desire to become a priest, but there’s not much of that here.
Having said that, the characters are easy to tell apart, ‘iconic’ and recognisable in their own ways, but lack depth and interesting contradictions within their characters. The Devil Rides Out has no real mystery, though clearly by design – within about three or four chapters
Action stories (film, television or prose) tend to have action and mystery, a chain of dramatic events, each leading to the next, but also a mystery. Who’s involved, what are they doing, how deep does it go. There’s none of that here – you can tell from early on roughly how it would end, and who’d be involved in the climax.
The magic, black and white (or ‘right hand’ and ‘left hand’ paths) feels real – it goes beyond the stereotypical trappings of magic – eye of newt and so on – and feels like a system of magic that could have grown up over time, that has it’s internal consistencies that make sense on their own terms. The Devil Rides Out is a ‘smart’ action adventure – the antithesis of something Michael Bay would produce.
The characters share a love of food – there’s beautiful descriptions of various meals, and the four Modern Musketeers seem to regard taking a light evening meal free from meat (something to do with sharpening the mind for the use of white magic) as a kind of torture. At one point, two characters are searching through a mansion trying to rescue a third. They may or may not be alone, and magic has been performed recently, but stop to make themselves sandwiches from the buffet they left. It threw me at first, but it’s the kind of strangeness that adds detail and quirk to the characters
There’s not enough tension or mystery to make the story as compelling as I’d like it to be. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on the problem – the action moves pretty fast, the ‘rules’ of magic are believable, and the characters were interesting enough to make me care about them. But I didn’t feel the kind of compulsion to race back to the book in the same way I did with Reacher and The Hunger Games – it’s almost a matter of being worried that the protagonists will be okay, but with Devil, I didn’t feel for them.
Writing this review made me think about rules particular to the action genre. I’m a fan of the Jack Reacher books, and I’ve this year read the first two Hunger Games books. In The Hunger Games, it’s obvious the main character isn’t going to die in the middle of the book (partially as she’s the narrator) but there’s always the belief that other, well-developed and likeable characters will die, and horrifically.
With the Modern Musketeers being in a series of books, it feels a little like when watching an ongoing TV programme – they won’t kill him, he’s a main character – and they won’t change dramatically over the course of the story either. The Devil Rides Out is over-written compared to them, and slows the speed of the action. It’s fine for Dickens to spend time describing the appearance of a person or building, but in an action novel, the story needs to move more swiftly than Devil does.
Each chapter with a cliffhanger, and I think they were pretty much all interesting ones, there is still a lot to enjoy here. Despite how it may seem above, I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t totally gripped by it. The Devil Rides Out is a derring do/boy’s own adventure, fantastical and escapist, and while darkness and the possibility of failure would go against the point of what the writer wanted to achieve, the lack of real danger stops it from being a page turner.
Verdict: A well-written, well thought out action adventure, but which lacks mystery or tension.
I’ve set out to read a minimum of 52 books this year, and write a brief review of each. I’ve reached a point that I didn’t think I’d reach this early – I’m justifying my selection by saying that it is technically a book.
Although I’m reading from The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Valley of Fear was originally published as a standalone novel. So, I’m going to count it as such, even if it is just over a hundred pages long.
I’ve just finished reading Afrika Reich, which is a very tough book to read at times. The book is set in a parallel universe where Nazi Germany’s victory at Dunkirk forced a ceasefire with Britain. They then defeated Soviet Russia, while pacifist America stayed out of the war. At the Casablanca Conference in 1943, Germany and Britain then carved up Africa between them.
Burton Cole, a retired former soldier and the protagonist, is hired to kill Walter Hochburg, the Governor of German Kongo.