Friday, December 21, 2007

The Chalet School series - Elinor M Brent-Dyer

The School at the Chalet
Jo of the Chalet School
The Princess of the Chalet School
The Head Girl of the Chalet School
The Rivals of the Chalet School
Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School
The Chalet School and Jo
The Chalet Girls in Camp
The Exploits of the Chalet Girls
The Chalet School and the Lintons
...and around 50 more with very similar titles...

I haven't read the entire series, but I got through a good chunk of them when I was about 11. It's a well-established fact that 11-year-olds have very little taste (see The Tweenies if you need proof), and unfortunately this is further confirmation of that fact. If I didn't have first-hand knowledge of how addictive I'd once found them, I would honestly be totally baffled by their appeal. By any objective standards, these books are awful.

Like the more famous Mallory Towers, St Clare's and Trebizon, this is a series about a private boarding school for girls; the main difference here is that the school is situated in the Alps (mostly) and takes its pupils from all across Europe and elsewhere. In more England-centred school series, there will occasionally be a token French or Spanish girl for some stereotypical European colour, but the Chalet is much more cosmopolitan, and there's a big emphasis on language-learning and cultural exchange. This is one of the few good things I can say about the series, however; in almost every other respect it's poorly-written, dated, elitist toss full of cardboard characters and nary a plot or a structure to be seen. And above all, it's so boring!

A typical Chalet School book covers just one term; instead of there being a real plot, it will just detail the mind-numbingly dull events of that term, with the occasional minor incident blown up into dreadful proportions. Soneone borrows Mary-Lou's pen and loses it, causing the Biggest Row the School Has Ever Seen! Some girls get caught in a snowstorm in the school grounds and their ten-minute walk back to shelter becomes a Race Against Death! Often there will be a loose structure to the book, along the lines of New Girl Arrives With Bad Habits But Soon Mends Her Ways, but this rarely consists of an actual storyline, it just progresses via the odd salutory incident in between the uneventful country walks (occasionally someone might fall in a puddle to spice things up), the Frightening Adventure with the Cat on the Roof and the blow-by-blow account of the nativity play. It makes Neighbours look like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Clunky writing is not something I cared much about aged 11, but it's quite painful to read now. We have the usual Thesaurus Dialogue, with girls exclaiming this or whimpering that; painful attempts at the occasional bit of American or Australian slang (slang is forbidden by Chalet School rules, and just as well too, as Brent-Dyer is quite incapable of writing it convincingly); and that old bane of long-running series, the Return of the Favourite Characters... In any normal series, having all your old characters pop by to say hello in every single episode is the mark of weak writing; in the later Chalet School books, it can be the basis for an entire plot. Parts of the books do feel like little more than an extensive name-check, where Brent-Dyer has to make sure she lets us know exactly what everyone's been up to for the last few months, even if there's not much to tell.

Partly for this reason, the later books are much less interesting than the earlier ones; in fact, some of the earlier ones still hold up reasonably well, at least by the standards of boarding-school stories. The two that really stand out in memory are The Princess of the Chalet School and The Chalet School In Exile - the former has a Balkan princess in danger from a rival claimant to her throne, which is at least an interesting story; and the latter has the entire (Austria-based) school fleeing from the Nazis, across the Alps and into Switzerland. The school then continued in the Channel Islands and Wales, before moving back to Switzerland after the war. The outside world doesn't otherwise intrude that much, but there are occasional moments of insight into contemporary values and society, which add the odd spark of interest to the proceedings. Chief among these is the pervasive attitude to illness - the school's proximity to a TB sanitorium gives us a glimpse into a pre-chemotherapy world where death by consumption was a daily reality, and in fact several of the school's frailer girls seem in danger of popping off at any time, following not much worse than an extended snowball fight.

The Chalet School also differs from its more English counterparts in the amount and type of religion on display. The European setting allows for a much more Catholic flavour, as narrow-minded English schoolgirls are frequently chastised for anti-Catholic intolerance, and Brent-Dyer delights in overly sentimental descriptions of beautiful hymns and services. It's clear that her allegiances lie with the High Church, and the rather cloying sanctimony of these passages is the oversweet frosting on a very dull cake. My rose-tinted spectacles may give me irrational urges to read these books again, but I can't find too many redeeming features among the bland, virtually identical characters and pages of mundanity. Maybe it's just early training for the girls who grow up to read Hello! and Heat?


Friday, December 07, 2007

Last Argument of Kings - Joe Abercrombie

This was some quick work. It's less than a year since I picked up the first part of this trilogy, and here's part three already, out next spring in the UK - quite an incentive for all those fantasy fans languishing in the long gaps between instalments in other writers' series. And the swift timescale has also not caused any drop in quality - on the contrary, each book in this trilogy has shown a distinct improvement, and with this fantastic concluding volume, I'd even go as far as to say it's become one of my favourite series. It's hard to avoid spoilers when reviewing the later parts of a trilogy, so if you haven't read the other two books yet, you might prefer to look away now (and go and read them, of course)...

So, our group of adventurers is back from their quest and in fairly low spirits; Jezal is weary but looking forward to his reunion with Ardee, Logan's heading back North to deal with Bethod, and Ferro just wants to kill some Gurkhish. Glokta, meanwhile, is busy canvassing in his own special way for the impending leadership election, but is increasingly torn between his duty to Arch Lector Sult and the demands of Valint and Balk, the bank who bought his services in Dagoska. West and the Dogman have reached the end of a long and arduous siege in Angland, only to find that Bethod has escaped them yet again. And Bayaz... well, who knows what he's up to? This sets us up for the final act, and as we've come to expect from Abercrombie, nothing quite works out how you think it will.

There's a lot more action in this one than either of the previous two. I normally find blow-by-blow battle scenes pretty boring, but these are so engagingly written that it's hard to look away. The mountain siege with Bethod vs the Northmen is particularly awesome, and has a real Helm's Deep feel to it; there's some good action elsewhere too. But, of course, the main attractions of this series has always been the characters, and they certainly don't disappoint either. It's very interesting to see a new side of Logan, once he's back among the Northmen and has a reputation to uphold (or live down); Jezal has to struggle between the simple life he now wants, and the glories that others want to bestow on him; and Bayaz's plans reveal that the affairs of wizards are definitely not to be meddled with. There are some unexpected promotions, unexpected betrayals and unexpected deaths, and overall there are plenty of fantasy conventions beaten bloody and sent packing.

The lack of a neat ending is a strong point in the series' favour, and a very fitting stylistic choice; the trilogy as a whole has crept gradually away from the standard fantasy template and gained a very unique feel. Having said this, for a book so different to Tolkien's, I'm going to make yet another Tolkien comparison - the aftermath and bittersweet ending has a very similar tone to the end of Lord of the Rings, which works very well and left me feeling still quite sad a few days later. I'm sure anyone who's read this far will be champing at the bit to get hold of this book anyway, but I can assure you that it's even better than the previous two, and well worth the wait.