The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

The deserved winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2013, this novel is powerfully economical, with Donal Ryan showing skilful storytelling with his unusual choice of structure. The novel tells the story of an Irish community shaken by the recent financial crisis, and is initially focussed on the character Bobby, whose distinctive voice sucks the reader in from the opening sentence of the first chapter. However it is soon apparent that each chapter is narrated by a different person, each a member of the same community, although incredibly diverse; ranging from a bereaved mother to an Eastern European worker, from an ageing prostitute to a primary school teacher. 21 narrators in all, each with their own story to tell, and each telling a collective overarching story. The thread of Bobby’s story rises to the fore throughout the novel, despite the fact that we never hear his own narration again – this is a clever piece of writing.

Yet as we all know, writing should not be praised just for being ‘clever’. Many a clever book can be dull as anything to read. This is certainly not the case here. The Spinning Heart manages to turn readers into fanatics because each of its narrators is convincingly lifelike and has a unique voice. Each piece they contribute to the novel’s jigsaw is to be cherished as a glimpse into a very believable society. Therefore its cleverness is not why this book is to be appreciated, but remains the mechanism behind its success. If the entire book were told from Bobby’s point of view, the story would not make so much of an impression – in fact, it would barely exist. It is the interweaving of each little plot strand that builds the novel, and each new angle which makes the characters whole.

The Spinning Heart has been praised by the critics: not only did it win the Guardian First Book Award, but it was long-listed for the Man Booker, and won two of the Irish Book Awards. No doubt Donal Ryan will go on to win many more. It is important to note, however, that The Spinning Heart was also the favourite book of the majority of the readers’ panels for the Guardian First Book Award – it’s not popular due to its ‘literary’ nature; it is a very enjoyable and moving read. Donal Ryan deserves a place among the literary greats, but shouldn’t just be praised for writing a book ‘for our time’ or for being a new star among the ‘great Irish novelists’. His work may draw upon themes well-established in Irish literature, his novel may have captured the financial crisis better than any newspaper column – but above all else – he’s written an excellent story, having hit upon the perfect way to tell it.

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Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Best known for The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff is an author ??????????whose tales captivate both young and old. Outcast is just one of her books which I’ve returned to time and time again – so ignore the fact that you’d probably find it in the children’s section of bookshops. Like many of her other books, Outcast is set in Roman Britain. It tells the tale of Beric, a boy who spends his childhood in a British tribe, only for his life to be destroyed when he is cast out for bringing bad luck upon his community. His crime? He was born a Red Crest; a Roman.

But Beric’s bad luck must also be sprinkled with some good – for he is a survivor; right from the moment when he lived through the shipwreck which killed his real parents. Sutcliff’s hero is bewildered, innocent, preyed upon. And yet while events turn from bad to worse – this is still a warming story. Is it fate which guides Beric’s path through the world, or is it his own actions? A little bit of both; Beric cannot change what happens to him, but he does know what he is looking for – a place where he belongs, where he will no longer be an ‘outcast’.

This novel is less of an adventure than The Eagle of the Ninth, but covers more emotion and tackles fascinating subjects with lightness of touch; such as identity and slavery. Beric’s relationships with various incidental characters of all walks of life demonstrate Sutcliff’s ability to craft his personality within a few short pages.

Not only are Sutcliff’s subject matters suitable for both teenagers and adults, but her language and vocabulary are too. A younger reader might struggle with the vocabulary, but by no means would I classify this a difficult read. Outcast was originally published in 1955, but Sutcliff deserves her place on 21st century bookshelves, and will still be there in years to come, even if it is a place supported by her most famous works – her back catalogue being largely (and unjustly) omitted.

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

??????????This is a rare novel – a piece of crime fiction in which the crime does not feel like a device. So many crime novels present various grisly murders solely so that their detectives can dance, the characters often feeling like puppets. The puppeteer can continue writing until he or she runs out of crimes to think of, when at last their detective can retire, or be killed off themselves.

Child 44 is different, because the crime is almost a secondary thread of the novel, which is set in Soviet-era Russia and revolves around the charismatic survivalist, Leo Demidov. Leo’s confidence in the Soviet state is gradually worn down as he is forced to confront the evidence that a series of tragic accidents are all connected – and the state’s refusal to accept that a crime has been committed. By daring to investigate the crimes, he himself comes under both suspicion and threat, alongside his whole family.

Inspired by a true case, this novel is a fast-paced thriller, packed full of dark secrets and twists which leaves the reader wholly satisfied at the end. Leo is not an entirely likeable character, but his personality quirks are not stock ‘maverick’ features we come to expect of fictional detectives; they are the product of the cruel environment which he had grown up in, and has learnt to survive in – but his chances of survival dwindle increasingly as he inches closer to the secret behind the death of child 44.

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

This highly-anticipated publication sees a new instalment in a much-loved fantasy saga begun in 1995 with Assassin’s Apprentice. The story was apparently concluded with Fool’s Fate in 2003, but, unable to keep from writing about the captivating stalwart characters of FitzChivalry Farseer and ‘the Fool’, Robin Hobb grants us a return trip to the Six Duchies.

If you haven’t read any of the previous series, you’ll need a little introduction here to Robin Hobb’s fantasy world; it is a world of political intrigue above all else, of secrets and a magic so subtle that it creeps up on you: not one of wizards and spells, but one of nature and minds. This brief description might remind you of the ubiquitous Game of Thrones – it is similar, and yet so different. These books have a lighter touch, more sophistication, more heart and soul. If you do plan to read the series, I would encourage you to hurry away and read no further into this review, which, although containing no spoilers for Fool’s Assassin, necessarily reveals some about the earlier books.

The main character, Fitz, last appeared in Fool’s Fate, having earned a more than well-deserved break, and having finally settled down with his one true love in the country estate of Withywoods, against all the odds. His part in the fate of the world was played out, and his ‘puppeteer’, the prophet who guided his actions and thus the course of the world, had left for distant shores, promising never to return. How could Robin Hobb unravel such a neat conclusion? Were it not for the confidence that I was in the safe hands of a masterful storyteller, were it not for the excitement of having an unexpected continuation of this saga, I would have been frustrated by this coda to Fitz’s life. But as the reader soon discovers, this is no after-thought, no coda at all. Fitz’s trials and tribulations aren’t done yet, and Hobb left enough loose ties to pick them up and carry on as if the previous conclusion were nothing at all. Yet the false ending of Fool’s Fate is cleverly navigated: Fitz expresses shock at the story not yet being over, having repeatedly asserted that his part in affairs of state is long concluded, and he is not the only person to do so.

This is part of the inherent beauty of Hobb’s saga – especially the parts set in the Six Duchies (the ‘Farseer trilogy’, and the ‘Tawny Man’ trilogy), narrated by FitzChivalry. He struggles to be an impartial narrator, attempts to set facts down accurately, yet imbues every page with his own opinions and emotions. He is writing his story, whether he intends to or not, and his own false sense of security is enough to explain to the reader why not all is as it seems. The Six Duchies, and the wider world, still has a future which lies in the balance. Fitz ignores the danger signs, convinced that all threats are long gone. Should we trust his instincts? Not quite – it is the mark of true literary skill when authors manage to write convincingly from a character’s point of view and yet leave enough room for the reader to see more than the narrator (see my review of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel). Turbulent times are clearly ahead for Fitz – whether he believes it or not, whether he is prepared for it or not.

Overall, Fool’s Assassin is a very welcome addition to Robin Hobb’s opus of work, and while it forms the beginning of the third trilogy/series about FitzChivalry and the Fool, it is in fact the fourteenth novel set in this fantasy world. Naturally, to get the most enjoyment from reading Hobb’s work, I recommend starting at the beginning and continuing in order of publication (that is; ‘Farseer’, ‘Liveship Traders’, ‘Tawny Man’, ‘Rain Wilds Chronicles’, and now this new ‘Fitz and the Fool’ series) to fully understand – at least, as much as Hobb permits us to understand – the world and characters she has so expertly created and nurtured.