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Stonehenge - Bernard Cornwell
Member Name: SWSt
Stonehenge - Bernard Cornwell
Advantages: Handy as a portable fire lighter?
Disadvantages: Boring, repetitive plot;, dull characters you don't care for; Seems to go on for ever
Stonehenge - the place - is a fascinating experience: unforgettable, built for unknown reasons and requiring unimaginable cost and effort to complete.
Stonehenge - the book -is a very dull experience: instantly forgettable, written for unknown reasons and requiring unimaginable cost and effort to read.
The word "epic" always makes me pause for thought. When describing books or films, it can mean one of two things. It can signify a fascinating, ambitious, multi-layered plot which spans vast timescales or geographical locations. Alternatively, it can mean a long-winded tale which has pretensions of grandeur, but which in reality is just an excuse for the author to burble on about nothing. From the rating I've given it, can you guess which category Stonehenge falls into?
The storyline follows three brothers. The eldest, Lengar, is warlike and aggressive, the second, Saban is peace-loving, whilst the third, Camamban is a cripple who becomes a powerful sorcerer. Although there is a distinct lack of brotherly love between them, they all share one goal: to build a powerful temple for the Sun God, Slaol.
Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Well, trust me, it's not. The idea of attaching a human element to the construction of Stonehenge, of trying to build a fictional account of the people behind the temple is an interesting one and should add a strong element of human interest. The book's downfall is its pace, which is unbelievably slow. This book is so slow that if it were an animal, it would be in danger of being overtaken by an elderly, unfit snail that'd really let himself go in recent years. The speed of the plot developments are meant to give you an idea of the magnitude of the task and the complexities in building Stonehenge. Instead, it becomes a rather dreary account about some rocks being moved around a bit. At times, the plot moves so slowly that you almost feel as though you are witnessing the construction of the monument in real-time.
It's not helped by the fact that the plot is deeply repetitive and involves the hauling of stones across large distances... several times. It can be summed up as this:
One Brother: "Hey, let's build a temple by bringing some big rocks a really long way".
Another Brother: "Hey, these rocks aren't as big as we thought. Let's tear down the temple and drag some even BIGGER ones an even BIGGER distance".
Another brother (possibly the first one again, although it's difficult to remember as they are so boring) "Hey, these rocks still aren't big enough... Let's go and get some even BIGGER ones from EVEN FURTHER away..."
You get the idea.
The trouble is I've just essentially parodied the entire plot for you in less than 100 words, yet Cornwell takes over 1,000 pages to achieve the same effect. These crude "plot devices" are tedious, repetitive and provide little by way of entertainment. The narrative might be sprawling, but behind it is hiding a simple, derivative tale of sibling rivalry. And big rocks.
Stonehenge never quite decides where it wants to pitch itself. Part of it wants to be an exciting tale of warring tribes and sacrifices (it never achieves this). Part of it wants to be a tale based around the known historical facts regarding the construction of Stonehenge (it never convinces with this). It never quite decides where it wants to be and so ends up stranded in no man's land. The "adventure" tale is insipid and goes nowhere, whilst the construction tale lacks sufficient facts to convince as an historical account. Put it this way: if I wanted to know about the construction of Stonehenge, I'd rather read a history book; if I wanted something to read for pleasure, the back of a till receipt would offer more excitement.
The dull plot is supported by equally dull characters which don't encourage the reader to engage with them. The supposed hero is Saban, but he is so bland, it's impossible to care what happens to him. The other characters are either unrelentingly bad or incredibly selfish, making you indifferent to their fates. When "bad" characters die, you don't feel the sense of elation that you should; when "good" characters die, there is no emotional tug. Frankly, you wish some of Cornwell's precious stones would fall and crush the lot of them, thus bringing the whole sorry saga to a welcome, if premature end.
Occasionally, a bout of excitement threatens to break out in the form of a battle or a feud between key characters. Thankfully, Cornwell suppresses this danger quickly and ruthlessly. The books of Cornwell's I've read previously have been at their strongest when describing battles, but ensuring they retain a more personal, human element. In Stonehenge, it's clear his heart's not really in it and he makes sure he gets such distractions out of the way quickly. Battles and feuds are usually done and dusted in just a few pages, lest they should get in the way of his lengthy descriptions of lugging great chunks of rock around. Excitement over, it's back to the important business of stones.
Cornwell doesn't help his own cause with his writing style. I have been critical in the past of his tendency to write in long chapters with only occasional breaks. This makes it very difficult to read the book in small chunks (on a short bus journey, for example or a quick five minute read before bed). Sections go on for pages and pages and this does not aid readability. Instead, it makes the book rather more intimidating to try and wade your way through: if you know you only have a limited time in which to read, there's not much point starting, as you'll have to stop halfway through a passage (something I hate doing). This in turn adds to the length of time it will take to get through the book, making it even more of a slog.
You've probably guessed by now that I didn't enjoy Stonehenge. There is a potentially interesting tale in there, but it is suffocated beneath the book's unnecessary length. A shorter tale which concentrated more on the characters and less on moving stones could have proved interesting. As it is, it's hard to recommend Stonehenge. It's a book looking for a purpose and nothing more than a criminal waste of trees.
Harper Collins, 1999
© Copyright SWSt 2009
Summary: A load of old boulders