Putting Boris Akunin with Terry Pratchett feels like the clue to a cryptic crossword, or perhaps a literary riddle. They’re novels five and six from my Ten-Books-of-Summer challenge and, on first sight, an unlikely pairing. Not that I read them together, but the second did follow close-on-the-heels of the first. Given the way the month is slipping by, I felt I needed to make more effort with my reading schedule.
Let me start by being shallow. What drew me to Pelagia and The White Bulldog was the cover. I liked the colours, and the firm lines, as well as the details. It suggested setting and period. I’ve been caught out before by inaccurate book covers, but in this case, my instinct was true. Every detail is relevant, though I didn’t understand quite how cleverly D. Rink had interpreted the story until I’d finished the novel.
As an aside, here’s a hint for any publishers who might stumble across this post: there’s more than one advantage in employing an artist rather than trawling through out-of-copyright images for something that’s vaguely appropriate.
The story opens in medias res (that’s the technical term for ‘in the midst of things’) with a long sentence. I know there’s a lot of valuable advice out there about brevity and simplicity. I agree with it. I’ll go further – I try to abide by it, especially on my blog.
But occasionally, I stumble across a piece of writing that demonstrates how to break that rule. I didn’t itch to un-cap my red-correction pen when I read this opening sentence:
…But I should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by a genuine plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you can never do it, what with all that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging way down low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling there only just above the tops of the bell-towers, for all the world like one of our renowned ‘smetna’ variety apples, the ones that the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to the shows in Europe.
I hadn’t even realised just how long it was, until I started copying it out.
To have interrupted this flow with stronger punctuation would have broken the lyrical dream I was entering. The world presented is a different continent and historical period to mine, but the delivery draws me in.
The narrator is close beside us, ‘I should tell you...’ It’s confidential. He trusts us to understand and share his view. ‘You‘, he says, again and again. I do feel that this is a male voice, though I’m not sure why. A male author doesn’t have to signify a male narrator.
There are references to Sherlock Holmes and, apparently, Akunin was influenced by Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose. This novel, however, feels like magical realism, though the set-up is quirky rather than fantastical. Sister Pelagia, a nun, is sent by His Grace Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhie, to discover who is trying to ‘murder’ his aunt’s valuable white bulldogs. As she investigates this crime, Pelagia stumbles across a whole host of additional situations.
This is a book that deserves careful reading. What can seem like inconsequential rambles into back-story will be key to the resolution. At its heart, this is a traditionally styled crime novel, with neatly deployed smoke and mirrors.
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents also uses a range of clever miss-directions. Maurice, a talking cat with questionable moral values, leads a clan of talking rats and a ‘stupid looking kid‘ who plays the flute. They’re travelling from town to town pulling a tremendous Pied Piper scam.
But, the rats, who used to live on the rubbish heap at the back of the University for Wizards, have begun to struggle with their recently acquired senses of individual identity. In doing so, they force Maurice, and us, to share their examination of actions and attitudes, and enter into philosophical and ethical avenues of debate.
The older clan member, Hamnpork, would rather ‘the Change‘ hadn’t happened. He thinks that ‘setting fire to a candle is a waste of perfectly good food.’
Dangerous Beans, though, was born after ‘the Change‘ happened. He is clear about why candles should be burned rather than eaten.
‘We have to be able to control the fire, sir,’ said Dangerous Beans calmly. ‘With the flame we make a statement to the darkness. We say: we are separate. We say: we are not just rats. We say: we are The Clan.’
It’s a pacey, character driven story. For those who care to look, it’s threaded through with satirical observations. Cultural myths about plague and rats are central. In the Author’s Note, at the end of the novel, Pratchett says:
I have read, in the past few months, more about rats than is good for me. Most of the true stuff… is so unbelievable that I didn’t include it in case readers thought I’d made it up.
There’s more than biological detail, though. He visits the Pied Piper, Dick Wittington, Puss-in-boots, Alice in Wonderland, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, plus Beatrix Potter and the legion of anthropomorphic story-writers who followed her.
As for James Herbert – remember his horror story about a pack of mutant rats that threaten human life? Pratchett turns that upsides-down. His rat-Clan have eaten the discarded ‘dribbly candle ends‘ and ‘green bubbly stuff‘ that are thrown so carelessly on the tip the rats knew as both ‘home‘ and ‘lunch‘. The result is the evolution of an heroic Clan, as keen as Sister Pelagia to think carefully about doing the right thing.
Improbable or not, the pairing of these two novels began to seem like a happy accident, with a lot of valuable writing practice in common.